Wednesday, September 22, 2021

More police won't help with Austin's biggest public-safety threats

Let's talk for a moment about public safety in Austin.

The argument for Prop A - the GOP-backed initiative to force the city of Austin to hire 500+ more police officers - is premised on the notion that Texas' capital has become uniquely dangerous as a result of the city council's anti-law enforcement policies. Local media have doubled down on this meme, touting Austin's "record" number of homicides while downplaying the fact that we're now a city of a million people and the record was set 40 years ago. 

How journalists present this information tells us more about them than whether Austin is a safe town. You can run with the scary headline, "Austin hits all-time murder record," or the equally accurate, "Austin has slightly more murders than when it was a much smaller town 40 years ago." The former may work better as clickbait (which is why they do it - hi, Tony Plohetski!) but the latter, contextualized account gives a more accurate sense of the threat.

Though you wouldn't know it from the local media's framing, the murder spike in Austin last year tracked nationwide trends and other Texas cities - including Republican-led communities like Fort Worth and Lubbock - saw even greater increases. So the notion that the murder spike resulted from Austin-specific policies or local attitudes toward police are dubious at best: Nobody thinks Lubbock's city council is anti-police, and they saw a 105% increase in homicides last year.

Even if you think crime is a problem, there's strong evidence hiring more police won't help. The question of whether hiring more police reduces crime has been intensively studied for decades with consistent findings, according to a 2013 metastudy analyzing hundreds of research findings over 40 years. Those researchers concluded, "This line of research has exhausted its utility. Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police."

Prof. Bill Spelman, a criminologist and former Austin city council member, now retired from UT's LBJ School, made similar assertions on local Fox news this week. He pointed to the lack of correlation between police staffing size and homicide increases last year, noting that departments of all sizes saw murder spikes, including agencies with high and low staffing ratios alike.

Indeed, Prop A arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the safety risks faced by the public. Murders are a scary way to die, but in Austin they're an incredibly uncommon one. By comparison, more than one thousand Austinites have died from COVID in the past year and a half. Prof. Spelman analyzed the various death risks in Austin and compared them to national averages. Here's what he found:

Austinites are far less likely to die from murders than other Americans, but we're not doing nearly so well on drug overdoses and suicide. In fact, former Austin Police Chief Brian Manley refused to allow police officers to carry donated Narcan to prevent overdose deaths, declaring that providing medical care was EMS's job. His successor, Joe Chacon, reversed that policy earlier this year, but police in Austin have not until VERY recently considered drug overdoses their problem.

Austin PD has also resisted efforts to send mental-health workers to suicide calls. The city funded a pilot to have teams led by medical professionals handle most of these cases, but after the first year, few real-world calls had been diverted.

Suicides and drug overdoses aren't areas where police play a meaningful role and increasing their number won't prevent deaths by those causes.

Similarly, there's little evidence increased policing will reduce traffic deaths. Statewide in Texas, traffic enforcement decreased by more than half since 2008, during a period when the population and miles driven boomed. And yet, accidents-per-mile driven fluctuated over this period then declined: There's been no apparent public-safety detriment from most traffic tickets going away.

Indeed, in Austin, in particular, the biggest sources of traffic deaths stem from flaws in traffic engineering. This city has until recently prioritized automobile traffic over bikes and pedestrians, so when those groups interact with cars, it often doesn't end well. Public-works improvement like segregated bike lanes and pedestrian tunnels will do more to prevent these deaths than hiring extra cops. But ironically, Prop A would prevent such spending by forcing the city to prioritize hiring police.

For that reason, on traffic, Prop A arguably makes Austin less safe.

Spelman's research re-frames the public-safety question more broadly to include ALL the threats people face, not just scary murderers. And as soon as one considers that broader question, the murders don't seem so scary. They're terrible events happening to small numbers of folks, but their existence shouldn't cause us to de-prioritize responses to threats that pose equally grave danger to far more people.


Gadfly said...

Would those 500 additional cops have blanket authority to arrest the #txlege? That's the biggest danger to public health in Austin, isn't it? (Tweeted)

Sean said...

Grits, how do you reconcile the meta study and Prof/Councilmember Spelman's assertion with this working paper that finds more police reduce murder and other serious crimes (with a huge carveout for large black cities)?

Up until coming across this working paper, I was inclined to go with better strategies work better to reduce crime than increased staffing, but now, I don't know.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I think the meta-study's criticism of methodologies applies to the study you cite. That working paper uses regression analyses to claim that "each additional police officer hired abates between 0.06 and 0.1 homicides." But law-enforcement employment nationwide last year was at its highest ever, so what explains the spikes? If it were true, homicides would only ever go down bc police agency staff has ballooned.

The meta-analysis critiqued the methodology of such studies and declared that the tools being used to evaluate the question weren't sophisticated enough to supply a probative answer. That's why they recommended that there's little additional utility in undertaking such studies, but obviously that doesn't mean other academics won't do so, anyway. And clearly, someone did.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, Sean, this issue of inadequate data/methods producing overstated results is a recurring theme for me when critiquing the criminologists, especially the ones indulging in a regression fetish. More on that here.

I think a lot of what criminologists produce is pure hokum, tbh (see this critique of the hot spot policing craze), and the whole field is overdue for corrective theories from ppl not captured by the agencies and systems they're analyzing.

Anonymous said...

I know Justices of the Peace aren't the sexiest topic, but this article on Judge Jeff Williams, Precinct 5, Place 2, deserves a read.

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