Science & Crime

At the June 20th joint Rockridge Community Planning Council/Greater Rockridge Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meeting, Mayor Jean Quan was asked how many police she thought Oakland needs.

First, she said that it is not a matter of what we need, but what we can afford, given that California policemen cost more than East Coast policemen, and she quoted that CA officers cost $200,000 per officer vs $100,000 on the East Coast. She then stated that her goal was to return Oakland to 800 officers that we had “before the recession.”  Although the current budget only gets us to 700, she said she is confident that as the economy continues to improve Oakland will be able to afford more police in the long term.

Several experts on crime & policing have visited Oakland and given talks about Oakland’s crime, and when asked the question of how many officers are needed, they answer with numbers that are much higher than the Mayor’s goal, from the 1200 officers that Justin McCray (UC Berkeley professor, author “The Effect of Police on Crime: New Evidence from US Cities, 1960-2010”) estimated to the 1000 that Frank Zimring (author, “The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control”) and LAPD Special Assistant for Constitutional Policing  Gerald Chaleff independently projected.

But more alarming than Mayor Quan’s low number of police we might hope for was her next statement: “I know others have said that we need more, but really as the economy rises the crime rate will fall and we will not need so many police” she said, and then stated:  “We need more now because the crime rate is high, but once people have jobs, then the crime rate will naturally fall.”

The belief that high unemployment causes crime is understandable; it derives from the premise that people would really rather work but commit crimes to feed their families or out of other necessity.  This belief, however, is not based in science.  Chapter 3 of Zimring’s book  “The Effect of Police on Crime” does a detailed statistical analysis of economic indicators vs crime rates, and finds no correlation.  In fact, most empirical studies of this issue have found either a weak correlation or no correlation between crime and unemployment.  Nationally, crime has actually gone down in three of the past four recessions to occur since 1980.


Conversely, most recent scientific studies of this issue have shown that the most reliable indicator of how much crime you will have is how many police you have, and how they are deployed.  As Justin McCrary said in his lecture at the Safe Oakland speaker series (sponsored by Oakland City Councilmember Libby Schaaf and Holy Names University), what appears to happen is that if potential crooks see a police presence, they are discouraged from committing a crime; if they know they will be caught (what is called “swift and sure justice”) they will commit fewer crimes. McCrary went on to say that the number of arrests go down as the number of police go up, because people don’t take the chance to do the crime.

LAPD Special Assistant for Constitutional Policing Gerald Chaleff spoke at another of the Safe Oakland lectures, and stated that every California city that laid off police during the recession experienced a 7% to 8% rise in crime rate for each officer who was laid off. He said that Los Angeles did not experience a rise in their crime rate in the same period because they had no lay-offs.  He concluded it was not the recession that caused the crime rates to rise in the cities where it did: it was the fact that they were under-policed.

Make Oakland Better Now! advocates that we have 900 police; we would advise the city leaders to listen to science and to adopt at least that goal.

Make Oakland Better Now!

OakTalk Here is the blog of Make Oakland Better Now!, an Oakland community grassroots group of a grass-roots group of voters, volunteers, and policy advocates committed to improving the City of Oakland by focusing on public safety, public works, and responsible budgets. Founded in 2003, we’ve researched, lobbied, and successfully campaigned for a number of new, impactful policies, including the city’s Rainy Day Fund, Measure Z and Operation Ceasefire.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Jim Blachman

    Getting Serious about Investing in Policing

    A couple of points are worth mentioning. First Oakland has a high violent crime rate, especially in low-income neighborhoods where it impacts every aspect of daily life. The city also has very high proportions of other “index” violations; robbery, burglary, car-theft, etc. Second, city leaders need to focus on actions they can take that will reduce crime.
    Delegating the job of crime fighting to the vagaries of economic growth is a strange policy choice for two reasons; (1) a cash-strapped local government like Oakland has no ability to impact its economic growth in any meaningful way and more importantly (2) there is no demonstrated relationship between a municipality’s economic health and levels of violent crime.
    Investment in policing has dramatically cut crime levels (violent and other) in other cities that held their public safety establishment accountable for bona fide crime reduction that’s both constitutional and cost-effective. Instructional for Oakland is another diverse California municipality also under the supervision of the Federal Court through a “consent decree” that succeeded in reducing crime, fully complying with Court requirements and improving the overall image of the police. That city is Los Angeles who this year exits from Federal Court supervision. To quote the Kennedy School study “serious crime is down substantially in Los Angeles over this same period. Indeed, recorded crime is down in every police division in the city.” (see: “Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree: The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD” , LA expanded its sworn staff, implemented “Compstat”-style crime analysis and instituted new procedures and governance to comply with the consent decree. From 2002 – 2007 violent offenses fell 50% in LA while in neighboring Pasadena, Anaheim, Santa Ana and Long Beach the change ranged from 5% reduction to a 12% increase. Another example of reducing crime by investing in police and policing is New York City. NYC’s dramatic and sustained crime reduction is well documented in “The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control” by Franklin Zimring. By systematically analyzing possible causes, the author concludes that city’s expanding the police force, policing more effectively and enforcing organizational accountability explain much of the drop in all types of crime throughout the 5 boroughs lasting nearly 2 decades.
    An administration committed to reducing Oakland crime should confidently champion investing in public safety while demanding accountability for real reduction in crime as well as constitutional and cost-effective police practice. This includes increasing the size of the sworn staff to at least 900 as well as investing in systems and investigation/evidence infrastructure. Further by increasing the role of less expensive “civilians”, Oakland can save $ spent on “California officers.” Equivocating on increasing the size of the police department and wishing for better economic times will not reduce crime in Oakland; a problem that inhibits economic growth and degrades quality of life for much of the city.

  2. Mark B.

    Time and again, Jean Quan has proven that she is not the right leader for Oakland in its current state. Even when the economy was running on all cylinders and the OPD had at least 800 people, Oakland still led in the top X of cities impacted by crime. This was never acceptable in the first place and only the delusional would even set this as a standard to achieve.

  3. jonathanbreault

    Jean Quan’s ridiculous assertion that the economic health of our city has any relationship whatsoever to the crime epidemic and the insinuation that when the economy improves, as unlikely an event as any imaginable, that the criminals will be gainfully employed and no longer steal, burglarize, assault etc is just another example of why this woman is completely unfit to manage anything let alone our town. Absent a change in the Mayor’s office we will be compelled to endure ineptitude, moronic pronouncements and the free reign upon us all now enjoyed by the burgeoning criminal class whose enterprise continues to flourish in this rudderless, violence afflicted town. There is no correlation whatsoever between economic prosperity and crime. None. New York City has 8.5 million people and had 475 murders in 2012. We have 410,000 and had 110 murders (or so). They have 39,000 sworn police. We have what??? 675. Do the math. Quan will make up any absurd, nonsensical, entirely unrelated factoid that serves to confirm her ridiculous belief that a city such as ours does not need a much larger police force. Real statistics mean little to Quan when she can instead use some anomalous, quasi relevant event or circumstance to rationalize her ridiculous world view. She will try to bamboozle the electorate into a Measure Y extension essentially black mailing us into passage notwithstanding the fact that the current Measure Y is a fraud.

  4. Grumpy

    It is not an issue that Oakland needs more sworn officers and other police improvements and reforms. The relevant issues are two: 1. Elected officials who actually want change from the status quo. 2. Elected officials who are competent to promote and see through the changes.

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