Monday, August 22, 2011

Hiring more police officers won't "save" city money

Debbie Russell at the Austin Post issued a thoughtful reaction to this Austin Statesman story by Patrick George which puts forth a pie-in-the-sky argument that "Hiring [police] officers could save Austin money." The argument, promoted by the Rand Corporation, is that hiring more police officers will directly result in lower crime and thus lower costs from crime to the citizenry. Writes George, "Hiring 47 new Austin officers — two of the 49 are airport police paid for by that entity — could mean 21 fewer robberies, 103 fewer burglaries and one fewer murder if the department is working at maximum efficiency," supposedly reducing overall costs to the community by $14.7 million.

Humorously, though, even Statesman commenters (a normally credulous lot when it comes to police department PR) nearly universally saw through this argument. Quipped one wag, "Why not just keep going. Let's reduce the unemployment in this town and hire 25,000 cops and save hundreds of millions of dollars and REBATE that money back to the taxpayers. Then the economy here will really take off!" From another: "According to this Alice in Wonderland logic, if we hired 400 more officers, crime would disappear."

Debbie makes a point emphasized on Grits in the past that the Austin Police Department's real staffing needs lie in civilian positions, and that hiring more rookie beat cops fails to address the city's most immediate crime fighting needs: investigators, 911 call takers, crime scene technicians, etc.. And she debunks a meme promoted by the police union and the department that there is a city policy requiring Austin PD to employ 2 officers per 1,000 residents; in fact no such policy exists, and there's no reason to believe that arbitrary number has any validity.

As for hiring more patrol officers, Grits believes the City should use the ones they have more effectively before hiring any more. A 2006 study found that 12% of APD police calls are spent responding to false burglar alarms. But despite calls for efficiency in government, nobody on the city council has suggested switching to verified response, instead preferring to continue inefficient practices and soak the taxpayer.

Debbie also pointed to another Austin Post article from the city's 2009 budget debate making the argument that Austin overspends on law enforcement compared to other jurisdictions. Here are a couple of notable charts compiled from that story, first on spending per full-time employee:

And also the proportion of General Fund revenue devoted to police and fire services:
For all that extra spending, though, Austin gets clearance rates and 911 response times that are average or worse, reported the Post.

The overemphasis on police spending stems from the local police union's political clout more than crimefighting needs. That's also why you see such an emphasis on hiring uniformed officers instead of crime scene technicians and 911 call takers: The latter aren't members of the union and pay no dues.

Another Statesman commenter dubbed "Your Superior" reacted to the story's bland assertion that, "The average Austinite would pay $265 more in taxes and utility fees in the coming year under the 2011-12 budget proposed." YS retorted: "It is very unlikely that I will make $265 more next year than I did this year. Most likely, I will make the same, or if the economy falters, a little less. I am going to pay for that $265 by taking food out of my shopping cart before I hit the check out line. It is the same sorry tale for the past five years of tax hikes."

Bottom line: The suggested possible benefits from reduced crime are speculative but the cost to taxpayers from hiring more officers is both certain and immediate. If the Austin city council hires more police officers based on this absurd analysis, no pun intended, they're buying a pig in a poke.


Anonymous said...


Though I agree that hiring more officers is not necessarily a sound fiscal move (civilians are MUCH cheaper per FTE when they are fulfilling a position that does not require arrest authority), the issue of responding to false alarms may or may not be cost effective. Here's why. The question to ask is what are the officers otherwise be doing when responding to an alarm. The general answer is "nothing".

Unmonitored alarms are ignored by many departments until the patrol officer has nothing else to do. After the 911 calls, the traffic stops, the lunch run, etc. are completed will an officer, in many departments, respond. Been there and seen it. What this issue has become is an excuse for cops not to provide service to those calls they prefer not to service. For most people it's the closest they get to actually obtaining a direct return on their city/county L/E tax dollars.

I concur that the current alarm system needs improvement - years ago working in Chicago it was the alarm company themselves that responded with armed security personnel first; this is but one example of a different model (with computers and cameras there is an inexpensive way to now visually confirm illegal activity by some monitoring entity) - but fixing it won't necessarily fix the manhour problems and departmental efficiency. Anything gained will simply benefit the cops (or management) personally and not the community. It's kind of like the community policing concepts of a few years ago. Many cops didn't like it, tried to avoid it and when 9-11 came along, used it as an excuse to not do it at all. If they weren't catchign bank robbers they simply didn't want to do it. Problem is, that's not what policing is. False alarms need to be addressed but, at times, it actually gets a cop out of the car and meeting and greeting some of the citizens they reportedly serve.

As for the 2 per 1,000 number you have to have some argument, no matter how lame, to sell a position.

As an aside, ever notice how they don't include any of the other law enforcement agencies in the city in their figure. School police? Constables? Arson investigators? Those people take a portion of the workload off of APD yet never get included in the numerator.

Thanks again for a great blog.:~)

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