Thursday, September 15, 2011

A silver lining to budget cuts for police departments

Budget cuts are forcing the police to come up with innovative ways to police more efficiently, possibly spurring police departments to achieve the same or even better results than in the past, at lower costs.

That article focuses on this example (though it also lists several others):

Partnering with criminologists from George Mason University, a team led by Sacramento Police Sergeant RenĂ©e Mitchell identified 42 “hotspots”—street corners that attracted the highest percentages of violent crime in California’s second most violent city.

As part of a 90-day study conducted between February and May this year, Mitchell and her team assigned officers to visit a randomized rotation of three or four of these hotspots for 12 to 16 minutes apiece during shifts. That meant police would inhabit Sacramento’s most dangerous corners about every two hours. The officers were told to be “highly visible” during these visits—to step outside patrol cars, to talk with people.

This was a change for Sacramento police. It focused on places to target rather than specific crimes, and relied on data rather than police instinct. The results, Mitchell says, were striking.

“Part I” crimes—which include violent offenses such as murder, rape and robbery, as well as property crimes such as burglary and vehicle theft—decreased by 25 percent in these hotspots. Calls for service decreased by nearly 8 percent.
The police were able to achieve those huge successes in the most high-crime areas of the city for just $75,000, which the article tell us is "less than one percent" of the police department's 2011 budget of $116 million. If my math is right, that's technically true but a dramatic understatement: 75,000 divided by 116 million isn't just less than one-hundredth; it's less than one-thousandth (about 0.065%). If you multiply the cost by 4 to estimate what this practice would cost year-round (instead of the study's 3-month period), it's only about a quarter of 1% (about 0.259%). The media expect us to think of "one percent" as "the smallest possible percentage," so they don't bother to make even smaller divisions than that.

Mitchell, the police sergeant who led the team that implemented the study, says:
“Arrests are glamorous. . . . People want to see that guns and drugs are being taken off the streets. But that’s reactive. We should be working to prevent. Our job is to reduce the opportunity for crime, not necessarily to patrol every street corner and make high-profile arrests. Sooner or later we’re going to have to face that.”
I've tagged this post with "unintended consequences." That phrase is normally considered negative, but it can be positive too.

(The article is from a brand-new site by the Atlantic called the Atlantic Cities.)