Monday, September 03, 2012

Austin police staffing "shortage" stems from subsidies to well-off residents

Would Austin need to hire more officers in its new budget if police deployment practices stopped subsidizing alarm companies and wealthy neighborhoods at the expense of low-income residents and high-crime areas? Probably not, or at least that's Grits' reading of a recent consultant's report on staffing (pdf) by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

The third most common type of police call in Austin (34,003 dispatches in 2011) is responding to burglar alarms, according to PERF's "Patrol Utilization Study." The report was commissioned by the city and has been spun by the media to argue that the department needs increased staffing to keep up with population growth. But deep in the document (and ignored by the local press) we learn exactly what proportion of officer time is spent driving around low-crime wealthy neighborhoods (presumably to prevent crime) and responding to nearly-always-false burglar alarms.

Buried in the study (but not reflected in its recommendations) was the following observation: "The high number of burglar alarms, 5.2% of the total dispatches, indicates that a re-examination of the city’s alarm ordinance may be warranted. Jurisdictions that have reduced alarm calls have levied heavier fines for false alarms, levied fines sooner with few or no 'free' false alarms, or required alarm companies to verify the validity of an alarm before the police are summoned." These authors failed to publish the current false alarm rate, but previous a 2007 APD report found it to be about 99 percent.

That much time spent responding to false alarms (IMO) improperly shifts policing resources toward more wealthy parts of town and undermines so-called hotspot policing in more crime ridden areas. The west-side Adam, Baker and David sectors (see an explanatory map) of the city cover some of the wealthiest areas of the town, and they also have the highest numbers of alarm responses. (See p. 22 of the report, which is p. 31 of the pdf.)

In the past Grits has strongly criticized the needless focus on responding to burglar alarms and so have internal Austin PD analyses. In 2006, out of 39,354 burglar alarm calls to which APD responded, they only made 11 arrests, compared to 7,467 actual burglaries reported that year. Poor folks (who are more frequently targets of crime) mostly can't afford elaborate alarm systems that bring out the police, so this practice amounts to a subsidy to the well-off at the expense of lower-income residents - one garnering very little crime fighting bang for the buck - not to mention a massive taxpayer subsidy to alarm companies.

And speaking of subsidies to the rich, the Adam sector notably is also the only area of town where "directed patrol" accounts for the largest category of "dispatch types," though crime rates in the area are among the city's lowest. The PERF report identified 33,039 total dispatches in 2011 for "directed patrol," with a whopping 10,842 in the Adam sector (out of nine total sectors around the city). Directed patrol is defined in the report as "patrolling critical infrastructure sites in those sectors," but that looks to me like it translates in practice to patrolling areas where rich folks live as opposed to where most of the crime occurs. The Adam sector was the only one where any dispatch category (in this case directed patrol) exceeded the number of traffic stops, which led the number of dispatch types in all other sectors.

Instead of expanding patrol ranks (what are we going to cut this time to pay for yet another round of police hires?), Austin should deploy the officers it has more thoughtfully. Alarm companies should be required to verify a burglary occurred before sending the call through to the police, and officers patrolling rich neighborhoods should be focused more on high-crime areas and/or re-deployed to undermanned investigative units. In tight budget times, everyone else in government has been forced to "do more with less." That meme should apply to APD as well.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just think. Saving millions by wisely using resources. WOW.

Anonymous said...

I have supported a large part of your posts. But this is one where you really haven't thought through your criticism. Saying "Alarm companies should be required to verify a burglary occurred <> sending the call through to the police." Why don't you try standing in a crowd of folks that have been robbed and try to pass this one off. These security companies are calling the homeowner while the cops are coming. I dare you to find one credible security person that agrees with this silly idea. The tacit premise of your story is ingnorant - which is you must be rich if you have security alarms. Or maybe it is also, you don't deserve to have 911 called right away if you have a security system. Do you have data on the times these occurred and the time away from other calls? The day after Labor must be a slow news day for Grits to come up with this silly idea.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Why don't you try standing in a crowd of folks that have been robbed and try to pass this one off."

Actually, once the crowd learned that a) the ratio of burglars caught by those alarms is 11 to 39,334, b) that Austin's clearance rates for burglary are plummeting because of this misplaced focus, not to mention that c) according to city staff (pdf), Austin PD only sends investigators only "to 35-45% of burglary crime scenes" because they fund patrol units instead of crime-scene investigators, I don't think it's a hard sell at all.

You also say, "I dare you to find one credible security person that agrees with this silly idea." How about former Dallas police chief David Kunkle? According to a briefing he gave to the Dallas City Council, "False alarm dispatches are the single greatest waste of law enforcement resources in the U.S."

Now go back to your job at the burglar alarm company, anon. Your comments are as boring as they are ignorant (or as you would put it, "ingnorant."

Anonymous said...

And they don't pay their FAIR SHARE either!

North Texas Cop said...

I've been a cop for nearly 17 years and I am a staunch advocate of verified response. The average street cop HATES responding to false alarms. While in grad school, I conducted an extensive study of verified response, the problem of false alarms, and the influence that alarm companies have on police depts and city governments. The dis- & mis- information provided to citizens by alarm companies is almost criminal in nature. Unfortunately, even in those cities where verified response is eventually adopted, we have seen just how low the alarm companies (with the assistance of the media) will stoop to convince the citizenry that verified response policies represent a dereliction of duty by police. I still remember how, shortly after Dallas PD adored verified response, the local media ran a piece about a business burglary in which police response was delayed due to verified response. The story ended with the business owner saying, "Verified response is a verified joke.". Two days later, Dallas was back to business as usual in their response to alarms. Meanwhile, the alarm companies smile as much of their business expenses continue to be paid by taxpayers.

Anonymous said...

Don't "well-off residents" pay more for city services through taxes? Maybe they deserve the "subsidies."

Anonymous said...

" we learn exactly what proportion of officer time is spent driving around low-crime wealthy neighborhoods (presumably to prevent crime) and responding to nearly-always-false burglar alarms."

Hah! Let me tell you what. I've never seen a "low-crime wealthy neighborhood" and I've lived in a few upscale wealthy neighborhoods. In particular, Kingwood and The Woodlands north of Houston. The burglary rate in these neighborhoods was astounding. If you weren't busy answering the 15+ telephone solicitation calls a day and running off door-to-door peddlers (I kid you not) you were keeping an eye out your front window to make sure some jerk wasn't trying to steal your AC unit or freshly laid squares of St Augustine grass.

Anonymous said...

My two cents as a former alarm company supervisor is that the best way to reduce false alarms is having consumers knowing how to use their systems properly, using common sense about daily routines in related to system settings, monthly testing, getting service calls when needed, and demanding prompt verification and alarm handling from their provider-including calls to cancel police dispatch when false alarms are confirmed after police dispatch.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:34, two things: 1) I'm defining low-crime neighborhoods by actual reported crime statistics, not personal anecdote, and in Austin there's less crime reported west of Loop 1 than east of I-35. 2) Even judging purely on anecdote, in those upscale neighborhoods where you lived, did you ever hear of a burglar actually caught as the result of an alarm? Arresting 11 out of 39,334 alarm calls isn't very good odds. The money is better spent on actually investigating real burglaries as opposed to responding to fake ones, but Austin spends so much on patrol they don't even send crime scene technicians to the majority of burglary sites. How are those priorities defensible?

11:44, most of that is between the customer and the alarm company, but the part I do agree with is requiring "prompt verification and alarm handling from their provider." Frankly IMO alarm customers are for the most part being suckered.

11:22, you can make that case, but not from the perspective of maximizing public safety. If you want to abandon public safety goals to pander to the rich, that's a value judgment you're free to make, but don't then try to pretend it's about "justice."

North Texas Cop, thanks for your comments. I suspect that, despite 7:53's assertions, most front-line officers feel that way.

Blue Turtle Garden said...

Actually, the main reason crime is lower in the Adam sector is because of the directed patrols. I live in a neighborhood that has one foot in Adam and one foot in Baker. One of the best things about living in this area is APD in this area is very pro-active and willing to work with neighborhoods, instead of being re-active.

The result is most of the neighborhoods is this area watch the crime stats on krimelabb and spotcrime, and when we see a crime trend, we notify APD and ask for direct patrols for the specific streets affected. In fact, I am the current Neighborhood Watch trainer for North Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods and this is one of the core principals that I teach.

Its far more efficient than the system you are defending. APD is directing their limited resources to known problem areas and are able to get in front of the crime trends. The only real problem we have with this system is it can be very hard to justify pro-active policing on paper because there is no way to measure those crimes that was stopped by good community-policing.

Your post is a good example. You are so used to re-active policing that you looked at our 'lower' crime statistics and automatically assumed these numbers means there is no crime in the area and no need for these directed patrols.

Our next Commander's Forum is in November 13th, 2012 – 7:00-8:30 p.m. at Parmer Woods on Scofield. I would like encourage you to come and see how community-policing works. Or - drop me a line and I'd be happy to show you how to make community-policing work in your area of town.

Regards,
Mary Rudig
GWNA Coach
www.gracywoods.org

Gracywoods - North Austin's Greenbelt

Liason - NACN
www.lovenorthaustin.com

Changing North Austin - One Neighborhood at a Time

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So Mary, you don't think it has anything to do with neighborhood demographics, income levels, etc.? Really? That's a little naive.

With all due respect, if APD were using directed patrols to deal with the areas with the most serious crime problems, yours would not be the outlier that it is right now in that category. Instead, as you point out, they're reacting to political as opposed to public safety concerns - squeaky (and well-heeled) wheels getting the most grease, etc..

And none of that, of course, justifies spending so much patrol resources on burglar alarms. Even if what you say is true (and I seriously question that it is), diverting patrol officers from false alarms to directed patrols in actual high crime areas makes a lot more sense than current deployment strategies.

Anonymous said...

Are you going to the meeting she invited you to?

Anonymous said...

Eww. Creepy stalker.

Blue Turtle Garden said...

"With all due respect, if APD were using directed patrols to deal with the areas with the most serious crime problems, yours would not be the outlier that it is right now in that category. Instead, as you point out, they're reacting to political as opposed to public safety concerns - squeaky (and well-heeled) wheels getting the most grease, etc.."

Hmmm, when we contact APD, we have to provide incident numbers from the 911 calls placed for crime in our neighborhoods as well as any information we might have that would help the police, such as the licenses and descriptions of strange cars we've seen during the same time.

Let me give you an example. If I watch spotcrime and krimelabb and see three break-ins in the same area of my neighborhood and notice there has been a couple of similar incidents at the apartment complex up the road, and I also have neighbors reporting an odd blue car driving around the area nobody recognizes, then its time to contact APD and turn the information over to them.

There's nothing political about it, its just applying common sense to crime issues. I suspect your resistance to the idea is because you believe that you pay taxes, so APD works for you.

My neighborhood's belief is APD can't be everywhere and we don't want higher taxes, so we are willing to watch spotcrime and krimelabb, and organize our neighborhood so we notice strange cars and people and then turn the info over to the police so they are more efficient in handling crime for our area.

"So Mary, you don't think it has anything to do with neighborhood demographics, income levels, etc.?"

You have the formula wrong. Crime doesn't follow demographics. The degree of citizen apathy in an area follows demographics, and crime follows citizen apathy. Don't believe me? Go look up the history of the renaissance of South Congress.

If you go to either of the websites I cited, you can find contact information to get a hold of me. Or you can check out our Watch in the Box here:

http://www.lovenorthaustin.com/watch-in-a-box.html

Regards,
Mary Rudig
GWNA Coach
www.gracywoods.org

Gracywoods - North Austin's Greenbelt

Liason - NACN
www.lovenorthaustin.com

Changing North Austin - One Neighborhood at a Time

Anonymous said...

People in Adam Sector think their neighborhood watch is the reason crime is low!!!!

Talk about somebody who's born on third and thinks they hit a triple!