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.