Wednesday, December 02, 2009

'To really fight crime, raise number of investigators'

The title of this post is the headline of a Nov. 28 op-ed in the Houston Chronicle by Bill King argued that spending more on patrol officers won't reduce crime but redeploying them from patrol to investigations might:
there is one recurring theme I have encountered in my research on this subject, and that is the size of a department's investigative force. While the public generally believes that more officers on patrol will deter crime, most of the studies show that more patrols have little effect on the overall crime rate. Like squeezing a closed tube of toothpaste, patrols may move the crime to different areas, but the total amount does not change much.

What the criminologists say is much more effective is dramatically increasing the number of detectives investigating crimes. Take burglary for example. Last year, there were about 27,000 burglaries in the city. HPD made arrests in a paltry 1,900 cases, about 7 percent. That does not represent much deterrent, nor does it take many burglars out of action.

One of principal reasons the clearance rate for burglary is low is that few cases are actually investigated. One detective told me that about one in 20 is seriously investigated. However, that is hardly surprising considering that HPD only has about 1,100 officers in its investigative division, a number that has not changed significantly over the last decade. With about 140,000 Part I crimes being reported each year, each investigator gets a new case about every other day. Considering that the more serious cases, like murder, can tie up a team of investigators for months, it is easy to see how there is little time to work on a garden-variety burglary. A dramatic increase in investigative resources would likely yield much better results than turning out several hundred new rookie officers.

In addressing the crime issue, we do not need the same old worn-out cliches. If we are going to reallocate resources for public safety, there should be defined expectations as to what results that will yield and metrics in place to confirm the results. Simply putting more officers on patrol, without smart, innovative thinking, will do little good. So when the candidates for mayor and city council come to ask for your vote and tell you they are going to get tough on crime, ask them to get a little smarter instead.

The old school description of law enforcement duties is "trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em." But between the drug war and the increasingly vast array of human behaviors criminalized by law, perhaps it's true that police departments have become overly infatuated with the "nail 'em and jail 'em" aspects of the job, underresourcing actual investigative staff, going after low hanging fruit instead of digging into the harder cases. That's particularly true on burglary, where clearance rates nearly everywhere are in the single digits just like in Houston. Lots of reports get taken, but I'm not sure many detective-hours end up getting spent on those cases.

Interesting perspective from Mr. King. I certainly agree that how police are deployed is just as if not much more important than how many there are.

As a corollary to his suggestion, if departments want to free up patrol resources to shift toward investigations, I'd recommend switching to "verified response" for private burglar alarms, since the vast, vast majority are false alarms. In a survey three years ago, the Texas House Law Enforcement Committee found that in some cities false alarms were the most common type of police service call - more frequent than things like 911 calls or traffic accidents - and in all surveyed jurisdictions it was in the top three. The rate of false alarms is 98-99%, and even when a crime occurred, usually the offender is long gone. If, say, ten percent of patrol officers' time is spent responding to false alarms and those duties are shifted to private alarm companies, that's manpower that could be shifted toward crime investigation without adding any new officers at all.


Amanda Cooke said...

I agree, more investigators certainly makes sense to me. Having more patrol officers has been proven to be ineffective. However more investigators means more crimes solved and more criminals in jail.

Anonymous said...

More investigators?

Couldn't they create a better flow of revenue by concentrating on ticketing people with charges it does not pay to battle?

Seems like it would cost a lot to investigate, prosecute, pay for public defenders, jail... for crimes most ignore anyway.

You're trying to throw the budget (cash cow) out of order there.


PirateFriedman said...

The huge number of patrol officers exist to make people feel safe, not to lower crime. They also raise revenue through writing tickets.

So this study makes sense. Investigators are put into action soley to incapacitate and deter criminals, so of course their effect on crime is higher.

Anonymous said...

I thought we were on a kick to reduce the number of peace officers in Texas altogether?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:56, what is your reference?

Anonymous said...

I also find it interesting that the sheriff of Harris County, Adrain Garcia, reportedly stripped the investigators on the NW side of the county that did handle burglaries and rolled them over into his pride and joy, gang investigation units. Even when they have the investigators, they get wasted on pet projects!:~)

Anonymous said...

Amanda, I think it would mean fewer people in jail because the patrol officers are picking up what Grits called the "low hanging fruit" and arresting people who don't really need to be incarcerated. Arresting one burglar might prevent dozens of crimes, but arresting one black guy with a crack pipe just because he talked back when a cop rousted him on the street might not prevent crime at all.

Adrenolize said...

I think that more investigators would help, but I think the point of new police officers are being missed.

There was mention in the blog about the number of calls received annually by HPD. Call volume is a huge burden on any police department, regardless of locality. As prior law enforcement, I can attest to the greater importance of response time to priority calls. When John Q. Citizen calls for a home invasion, assault in progress...etc. Each minute equates to life and death. I know two departments who were proud to have a 7-9 minute response time. Think about that. Would you prefer to have a speedy resolution to a burglary, or have someone with authority and a firearm show up when you children are abducted or someone is trying to take your life? Most of the response times are bogged down due to barking dog complaints and other trivial calls. I could go on and on about some of the crazy things people call the police for.

It is all to easy to point fingers at the police and blame them for all of your woes. I understand you are unhappy you received a speeding ticket or feel like you were unjustly arrested on what you perceive to be a minor infraction. The police are like referees throwing flags in a football game. If you don't like the rules, would it not make more sense to go after your legislators and change the laws?

Your elected leaders set the table from which the police have to eat. Consider what they lay on the line every day and the amount of flak they take doing their jobs. Consider that before you expect them to always be cheerful and prompt when responding to your needs.

More investigators would be very nice. I would continue the focus on priority needs first.

Anonymous said...

" I know two departments who were proud to have a 7-9 minute response time."

And what good is that going to do me if someone is breaking into my home?

I live in a safe neighborhood. Luckily the odds being killed in a home invasion are very small.

But it does happen. And when the city hires more patrol officers, less homeowners get guns, less homeowners get dogs, less homeowners get alarm systems. And so neighborhoods often become more dangerous.

Anonymous said...

So why can't the investigative position be offered to licensed Private Investigators. The only crime I didn't investigate in my 22 years as a PI was murder. More than that you have to have federal clearance to be a PI, so why not use those of us that left the field because the work is so random and thereby making earning a living a stressful thing. We're already aware of the laws, most of us are licensed to carry guns, we've pass the State and Federal background checks, we/re physically in shape, so why not employ us in a field that we're already expereinced in (investigation) and allow us to use our expertise.