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.