The Very Thin Blue Line – Police staffing is down, and homicides are up
In Oakland in 2021, 133 people were killed and another 537 were shot, making Oakland one of California’s most dangerous cities.
To put the numbers in perspective, more Oakland residents were killed per capita than the entire fatal casualties experienced by the US Armed Forces in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. If it weren’t for the skilled medical staff at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, a nationally recognized leader in trauma care, the homicide rate would certainly have been far higher. It also means that criminals who intended to kill their victims will ultimately receive lighter sentences because their victim’s lives were saved.
Last week, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf stated that the movement to “defund the police went too far….”
Too far indeed. Just days after the Juneteenth mass shooting on June 19, 2021, at Lake Merritt, the Oakland City Council voted 7-2 to defund the police department by $17.4 million over two years. Mayor Schaaf opposed the vote. By September, the number of Oakland PD officers dropped to below 700 – the lowest level in 6 years.
In February 2021, San Francisco Mayor London Breed led a vote to cut $120 million from the police budget. The timing of the cuts and their implementation can be debated but 2021 proved to be a deadly year – 222 San Franciscans would be shot and 56 of them died. As in Oakland, the work of San Francisco’s trauma centers prevented a much higher death toll. San Francisco DA, Chesa Boudin has acknowledged that arrests have a positive effect on crime reduction. Unfortunately, he and his progressive allies in San Francisco and around the country have driven thousands of officers from the profession. SFPD is reportedly down 400 positions.
Back across the Bay in April 2021, the City of Berkeley cut its police budget by $9.2 million – calling it “reimagining public safety”. It further forbade Berkeley police officers from making inquiries about a suspect’s probation and parole status and prohibited “low-level” car stops. Berkeley recorded a record number of shootings in 2021 but no homicides. Fortunately, the criminals in Berkeley are not accurate. By October 2021, the Berkeley City Council was lamenting that BPD staffing was at historic lows.
In June 2021, the Richmond City Council cut $3 million and 12 positions from the police department. By the end of 2021, 77 people would be shot – 18 of them fatally.
It’s not just the defunding phenomena and It’s not just the Bay Area – police resignations and retirements are up nationally. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) reports that in 2021 retirements are up 45% and resignations up 18% over 2020 levels. The trend shows no sign of abating in 2022. Police staffing levels in 2021 are lower than their 2008 high despite increases in the population.
Fewer officers are doing more work with fewer resources, response times are getting longer, investigative resources are stretched, arrests are down, years of acquired expertise, and institutional and community experience are lost. In those cities, criminals are taking advantage.
It’s not all bad news. In San Jose, a city that resisted political pressure to defund the police, homicides are down. San Jose PD staffing levels are below their historic high but have remained stable. 2021 saw a 30% drop in homicides from 44 in 2020 to 31 in 2021.
Morgan Williams of the New York University Graduate School of Public Service recently completed an analysis of police staffing and crime rates for 242 cities from 1981-2018, which shows that there is a correlation between police staffing levels and a reduction in crimes.
Williams’ research shows that each police officer can prevent .1 homicides and that the impact in Black communities can be as much as double that in white communities. To put it differently, police hiring saves more Black lives in per capita terms.
To achieve the reduction of homicide by 1 victim per year a department would need to hire as many 17 officers due to staffing formulas. It takes 17 officers to put 10 on patrol due to administration overhead and special assignments, court appearances, sick time, vacations, and training.
The impact of one officer means that there will be 1.3 fewer violent crimes and 4.2 less property crimes per year and as well as a positive economic impact of a whopping $300,000 in crime prevention benefit – a figure far higher than the cost of employing the officer.
Saving lives is expensive. But crime is far more expensive. Perhaps political leaders should ask the families of the victims what they think it’s worth.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.