When someone is in danger, or has been the victim of a crime, they call the police. Law enforcement’s ability to respond to these calls is a function of capacity—the number of police officers available to respond when those calls to 911 are made.
Much ado has been made about rising crime rates and Public Safety Realignment, the 2011 law that shifts responsibility of non-violent, non-sex, non-serious felons from state prison and parole to county jails and probation. It’s a significant change, but what has been examined less is the impact of cuts over the years to police departments—even before Realignment.
Between 2009 and 2012, the City of Salinas saw a 20.9% decrease in the number of its sworn officers. According to the Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law, Salinas was just one of 20 California cities (with populations of 145,000 or more) that saw reductions, totaling 1,226 for the state since 2009. Others hard hit—Stockton (16.4%), Oakland (18.4%) and San Jose (19.5%)—are the very same cities in the news for troubling upticks in property and/or violent crime between 2009 and 2012. (Eight other California cities also saw increases in property or violent crimes in 2011.)
And it’s important to note these cuts occurred in the face of an 11.3% increase in budgeted positions in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) between 2011 and the end of Fiscal Year 2013-2014. According to the California Department of Finance, CDCR added nearly 5,000 staff positions between Fiscal Years 2011-2012 and 2012-2013—and project adding another 1,000 for 2013-2014. This despite the fact that the state prison population has decreased by more than 23,000 people since Realignment began in 2011.
Meanwhile, staff reductions within police departments not only impact our responsiveness to calls but also our ability to coordinate with other agencies and to engage in innovative practices. Probation, for example, now plays a critical role under Realignment, as county probation officers supervise more people that otherwise might be in jail or prison.
To ensure that those offenders follow the rules of their probation and don’t reoffend, probation must effectively collaborate with police officers on the front lines. Overloaded probation officers working with fewer cops results in inadequate supervision of offenders.
Similarly, innovations in community policing (where law enforcement collaborates with neighborhood groups, nonprofits, the faith community and educators) to reduce and prevent crime is jeopardized with fewer police officers.
That’s what makes the recent sequester cuts all the more disheartening. Because Congress and the President couldn’t agree on ways to reduce the deficit, California will receive $263 million less in federal grants, including many that benefit public safety through substance abuse, mental health treatments and rehabilitation programs for prison inmates, not to mention the massive cuts to social safety net services which leave vulnerable families at risk. This comes after 43-percent declines in federal funding for criminal justice efforts across the nation over the past few years.
Many of my fellow police chiefs in California want to continue the important work of initiating or expanding proven approaches to reduce and prevent crime. According to the Warren Institute, research reveals that investing in police rather than expanding corrections is a more effective public safety strategy—a matter of prevention over reaction. Their review of 14 studies shows a link between higher numbers of police officers and a reduction in crime, especially property crime.
And shouldn’t this be our goal, to prevent crime before property is damaged or lost, and before people are hurt or killed?
Law enforcement will continue the hard work of protecting the public despite budget constraints, but we need elected officials to protect our departments – and the smart justice approaches we’re employing – from new cuts. Budget battles may deal with abstract figures, but those turn into very real numbers locally, from pink slips to, sadly, crime victims. — Ed’s Note: Kelly McMillin is the chief of police in Salinas, California.