Justin McCrary: The Economic Argument for Policing

On Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 1:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church, 114 Montecito, Make Oakland Better Now! will sponsor a public forum, “Can Oakland Afford to Be Safe?,” featuring Chief of Police Howard Jordan, City Administrator Deanna Santana and key staff members to discuss the connection between Oakland’s budget challenges and the need to rebuild the Oakland Police Department. All concerned Oaklanders are urged to attend. Meanwhile, we are looking at issues related to the economics and financing of public safety.

On Thursday night, as part of Council Member Libby Schaaf’s Safe Oakland speaker series, economist and Berkeley Law Professor Justin McCrary spoke about his and Aaron Chelfin’s study, “The Effect of Police on Crime: New Evidence from U.S. Cities, 1960-2010.” Like many academic papers — particularly those in the field of economics — the study will seem fairly ponderous to lay persons. So it was helpful to have him give a relatively simple presentation of his findings, and field questions from Chief of Police Howard Jordan, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, Council Member Noel Gallo, and Council Member Schaaf. His presentation can be summarized in the following bullet points:

  • In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a prevailing “old view” among scholars that the level of police staffing did not affect the crime rate all that much. But in the 1990s and 2000s, there has been a growing body of evidence indicating substantial effects of police on crime.
  • In “The Effect of Police on Crime,” he and Gelfin reviewed changes in police staffing and crime in more than 200 cities over a 50 year period, and found the evidence clear: increased levels of police result in lower crime rates. The effects are larger in the recent era, as police departments have become more innovative.
  • Their study is in accord with the experience Professor Zimring chronicled in New York, where the number of police went up and the crime rates plummeted (murder at 17% of the 1990 level, robbery at 18%, and motor vehicle theft at 7%). Likewise, it is in accord with the Los Angeles experience, where murder, robbery, and motor vehicle theft are at 25% of the 1990 levels.
  • Cities with the biggest crime drops have done two primary things: invested in police staffing and in new strategies, primarily saturation policing and aggressively using information technology
  • There is a “police elasticity of crime” of minus 0.50 (minus one half). This means that a 10% increase in police results in a 5% reduction in crime, a 5% increase in police results in a 2.5% decrease in crime, and the converse is true as well: a 10% decrease in police will result in a 5% increase in crime.
  • This reduction in crime results is a reduction in incarcerations; thus, saving money that would otherwise be spent on prisons.
  • Transportation agencies (such as Caltrans) assign a dollar value to a human life to conduct transportation safety measures cost-benefit analyses. According to Professor McCrary, the Caltrans number for a human life is $7 million (although we have seen numbers ranging anywhere from $2.6 million to about $9 million). Using the $7 million, figure (and, presumably, the more calculable cost of property crime), McCrary calculates that every dollar spent in Oakland on policing will result in a $2.90 improvement in public safety, not including the amount that is saved by lowering the incarceration rate.

We have some doubts about the rather arbitrary assignment of dollar values to lives, happiness, etc. But Professor McCrary makes a good point: whether it’s transportation agencies or other state and federal agencies, they receive ever-increasing funds to save lives. Yet city governments, including Oakland, have been cutting the spending needed to save lives.  As McCrary puts it, why do we increase spending to save lives on the highways but not to save lives on the sidewalks?

Additionally, a serious policy point is this: the United States seems to be the only developed nation in the world that separately funds its policing (a local government expense) and its incarceration (a state expense). So instead of paying more for policing to prevent crime, we pay more to punish criminals once caught. If a city police force is expanded, with the resulting reduction in crime, the state’s expenses for incarceration go down, but the city gets no benefit from the reduction.

This disconnect suggests the need for some nationwide, or at least statewide, policy changes. According to Professor McCrary, no one who studies crime thinks the solution is more incarceration and fewer cops, and yet, that is the direction we are going. So while Oakland needs to find local solutions to its public safety budget dilemma, a big part of the long-term solution will ultimately have to occur at a higher level.

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9 responses to “Justin McCrary: The Economic Argument for Policing

  1. Mayor Quan’s posturing about more police is not very convincing, but she would like us to pick it apart, distracting ourselves from the real job: remind people that Quan will cry next year about renewing the Measure Y (actually, BB now) taxes. Their ten-year authorization expires in 2014.

    If Quan can get the taxes renewed, City Hall will forget about police staffing for the next nine years, then posture again for a year.

    There should be minimum conditions for extending the Measure Y taxes.
    1) Quan moves on instead of running for re-election on the same Nov. 2014 ballot. She is the worst Oakland mayor in regard to public safety as far back as anyone can remember.
    2) Make the measure a genuine police staffing law by shrinking the violence prevention component to 10% and eliminating the $4 million off the top that the fire department gets.

  2. The very first thing we must do to improve Oakland is to get rid of Jean Quan and those like her. For years, I’ve pleaded with Jane Brunner, Nancy Nadel, and Jean Quan to listen to reason; you just do NOT cut the police force for a very violent city. It was clear to many that the status of their political alliances were more important than the safety of Oakland residents.

    We must get rid of them before we can right the ship.

  3. This post correctly focuses on the governmental disconnect between State and Local agencies. Working together, including public private partnerships, and inter-agency cooperation, is essential to meaningful gains in safety. Excellent points on the lack of benefit viewed monetarily by local government via reduced incarceration, although a ‘bean-counter’ centric analysis does address the entire picture.

    What is absent in this essay is the metrics of the far lower cost of investing in improving education and the economic vitality of our community. We need to learn to “change the oil” rather than “fix thrown rods” to keep our community ‘engine’ running properly. Such an approach will result in increased employment, improved property value, more vital businesses, and more tax revenue from an improved base. Going out on a limb here, my point is that although it may take longer to reduce crime by creating a better educated, happier, and gainfully employed community, if one takes a “Long view”, I would wager that the cost-benefit analysis of such a integrated strategy is far superior than ‘betting the farm’ primarily on the current cycle of ‘police-homeland security- prosecution – incarceration- and our [failed] re-entry programs.

    • The costs and benefits of the means used locally to improve education and economic vitality need competent analysis rather than statements of belief. Oakland has devoted significant resources to projects of this sort over the past decades with very little to show in positive results. I would agree that improving education and economic vitality are critically important but would add that effective education and economic growth are directly related to violence and other crime. The Oakland kids who can’t function in school are the same kids whose families are traumatized by violence. In Oakland kids are scared of the cops and scared of the shooters who kill their family members. The parts of Oakland that are high in crime are not the fertile soil where vibrant small businesses spring up; many large business investments are no doubt discouraged by the sense that local government is incompetent.

      • We moved our small-micro business to East Oakland and 2011 are very happy with the decision – Industrial building off off 98th. Unlike Montclair where we live, I could rent 5K SF at a reasonable price, less than the cost of 450 S.F. in Montclair and we needed the space. We are committed to hiring locally, job training, and even considering hiring via the re-entry program run by PIC. We cannot do a lot, and often job applicants are their own worst enemies, but we will do want we can do to help and hope others also consider what they can do to improve the local economy. If our clients book orders and are willing to pay a price that supports living wages (vs Asian imports), we plan to hire heavily as the year moves forward. Big IF though.

  4. well, nice post, thanks for share

  5. Why not spend money preventing crime. Something like a $250 award for High School graduates, another $250 if you have a clean record by age 21 and/or 25, $500 for obtaining a 2 year AA degree or technical degree from a local community college. $1,000 for getting a bachelors degree. Subsidize Gym/Sports/Boxing/Swimming/Running/Yoga/whatever by giving $250 per person per year, with verified participation from the facility. Cap admin fees for distributing money at something like $1000 per facility or program. Buy art ($100 max per piece, per person, or something) from locals and create an local art gallery with the purchased art. There is plenty of unused commercial space that is being wasted that could be used for this, and more.

    Also, why not (with voter approval), take $500,000 and create 100 $5,000 or 500 $1,000 or 1000 $500 temp/contract jobs for 18-40+ year olds. Have people apply saying what they would like to do as a job, clean up trash, “free” car washes, street performance, bike repair, community BBQ, whatever. Create a festival, applicants can provide food/music/comedy/art/whatever for the festival.

    All relatively cheap in comparison, and it will make kids somewhat happier and encourage them to take a more creative and less destructive path.

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