Monday, January 8, 2018

Should Lower Crime = Less Police?

The U.S. Has Lower Crime: Does That Mean Fewer Police?

With the close of the year, the tally was in: Crime was down in the 30 largest cities in the United States, and even a worrisome uptick in urban murders had subsided.
More than two decades of safer cities has cleared the way for major changes in the nation’s criminal justice system: fewer prisoners, shorter sentences and more pardons.
But fewer crimes have not resulted in fewer police officers on the streets.
In 2016, there were slightly more officers per capita than in 1991, when violent crime peaked, according to data collected by the F.B.I. Now, officers deal with half the crimes per capita that they did then.
But hardly anyone questions the size of police forces. Not taxpayers, who might expect the decades-long drop in crime to produce some budget savings. Not politicians, though they have a host of competing priorities, like schools and hospitals.
Interestingly, schools and hospitals will take funding cuts all the time, but police departments never do. Why? Part of it is the fear that crime will necessarily go up if we cut police departments. Logically that makes sense, though it has no basis in reality. 

Jeffrey Reiman hit on this in his book "The Rich Get Richer, And The Poor Get Prison" years ago: the police and crime have a dialectical relationship in that increases or decreases in crime are always used to justify more police. In other words, when crime goes down, we assume that's because we have the right amount of policing, and that if we really wanted to lower it further, we'd hire more police. And when crime goes up, we simply need more police. The criminal justice system feeds on itself and, oftentimes, feeds on failure.

So why is crime going down so dramatically (e.g. the lowest in Gotham since the 1950's)?
The factors driving the crime rate are complex, mysterious and can vary from city to city. Data-driven policing strategies, economic growth and decreased alcohol consumption were bigger contributors to the overall drop in crime than having more police or higher incarceration rates, said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center.
Last year, a study by three economists found that opening a new drug treatment center could save a city about $700,000 a year in crime-related costs. Another new study found that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act caused a 5.8 percent reduction in violent crime.
But the old mentality of "git tuff" on crime is still politically successful. 
“American police officers are screaming, ‘Help us with mental health, with drug and alcohol addiction. Help us to stop using arrest to deal with these problems.’ ” Mr. Serpas said. “And then there are others who are screaming: ‘Crime is up. Help us arrest everyone again.’ ”
Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, for example, has warned that “violent crime is back with a vengeance” and advocated a more traditional law-and-order approach.
Like announcing last week that he was going back to war against marijuana, even in those states where it's now legal (six and counting). Which shows you both A. how out of touch with reality this administration actually is, and B. why it won. We have 65,000 people od'ing on opioids every year in the U.S. (and exactly 0 overdoses on weed), but it's weed we're going to war against because race. 
Black Lives Matter activists, who oppose police brutality and racial bias, have regularly called for redirecting money from the police to community intervention programs, which could deploy “community conflict de-escalators, gang intervention specialists, and mental health response centers” to deal with nonviolent situations.
There are few points of agreement between the Black Lives Matter movement and police unions, which maintain that officers are overworked and unfairly criticized. But they agree that the police should be better trained for the types of situations they are asked to handle. Employing fewer officers could free up money for better training, and perhaps also for higher pay.
After all, said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, the police are called on to make life-or-death decisions. “I would rather have highly paid, highly identified, highly skilled police officers who can respond to these crises,” Mr. Wexler said. “I equate what the police do to an emergency room physician.”
Correct, but we don't need armies of physicians standing around the ER waiting for patients. Fewer will do. That's the point: the hyper-militarized era of policing should come to an end, and if it's simple economics that moves the needle, then so be it. 

But the politics of it make it still unlikely to happen. 

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