The most dangerous cut of all: How fiscal crunches could cost public safety, reverse crime reduction
BY MARK MARSHALL AND WILLIAM BRATTON
Monday, May 23rd 2011
With a conflict looming over the federal debt limit and fierce battles, like the recent one in Wisconsin, raging in city council chambers and statehouses, policing and public safety are in grave danger of being ripped apart by a budget-cutting buzz saw. Yet, public safety, especially at the critical local level, is as important to the American economy as housing or bond markets. Without safe public spaces and citizens feeling secure in their communities, the economy's modest recovery will nosedive, and government budgets will be in worse shape than they are now.
Fiscal crunches are forcing police chiefs across the country to slash budgets, reducing staffing, deferring equipment purchases and undercutting the very ideas and strategies that led to historic crime reductions in the past two decades. The cuts threaten to push us back to the old reactive policing model, with police responding to crimes but doing little to prevent them. Memories may have faded, but murders in the United States reached 24,700 in 1991. Because of successful proactive policing strategies since then, homicides in many cities are now at their lowest level in 30 years.
But unless we realize that police work matters and fund police forces accordingly, this downward crime trend, which we have come to take for granted, can and will be reversed. More than 40% of police chiefs recently surveyed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police have not been able to hire new officers in more than two years and more than half had to lay off staff last year. They also report across-the-board cuts in every nonpersonnel category, even as most departments were being asked to shoulder additional duties.
A number of cities have had to take drastic actions to balance budgets. Pontiac, Mich., eliminated its entire police department and has contracted out police services. Camden, N.J., a city already struggling with a very high crime rate, laid off over half its police force. Even closer to New York, more than 150 officers were terminated from the Newark Police Department after city officials and the union failed to reach a compromise.
The fiscal situation faced by local and state governments is stifling innovation. Almost all of the successful ideas that helped drive crime rates to historic lows were developed at the local level, from the philosophy of community policing that led police to work more closely with communities; to the principles of problem solving that had cops addressing the causes of crime; to the command accountability process called Compstat that drove commanders to concentrate on the core functions of controlling crime and disorder. The ideas that reshaped policing in the latter part of the 20th century began within local police agencies; this flow of innovation will be choked off if these agencies are underfunded or disbanded.
As we have learned in the past decade, counterterrorism also has a critical local component. The killing of Osama Bin Laden does not in any way obviate the need for local and state police vigilance in preventing the next attack. If anything, the concern over homegrown and lone-wolf terrorists has actually increased; the methods and activities of these actors make it far more likely that they will be detected by local law enforcement than by national intelligence agencies. New local counterterrorism methods have been developed over the past 10 years, including fusion centers that coordinate local law enforcement and counterterrorism across counties and regions. However, funding for these successful programs is in jeopardy.
In tight fiscal times, we must ensure that certain core policing principles, as well as baseline funding, are nonnegotiable. As the field of policing works to provide services more efficiently, we implore the budget cutters to preserve the capacity of police departments to practice and advance the tactics that have proven so successful in addressing crime and terrorism.
If we are not careful, police will lose touch with the community again, we will lose control of our public spaces again, and we will witness a return to the disorderly conditions and high crime rates that have largely faded from memory. Worst of all, we may disable the capacity of local police departments to "connect the dots" and prevent the next terror attack. And if we do, our economic recovery will stall, and today's budget battles will become tomorrow's futile attempts to shift the blame. Policing and public safety must be seen as an essential investment, not a cost, for the well-being of our democratic way of life
Marshall is chief of police in Smithfield, Va., and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Bratton is the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and former commissioner of the New York City Police Department
This Op-ed appeared in the New York Daily News on May 23, 2011. The article can be found by clicking HERE.
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