In its push to win public support for President Obama’s latest “jobs” proposal — $35 billion in federal subsidies to state and local employees — the White House has sent Joe Biden on the trail to stir things up. Speaking to a crowd in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Biden characterized Republican opposition to the bill as unsympathetic to the victims of violent crime, including rape.
“I wish these guys . . . had some notion what it’s like to be on the other side of a gun, or a 200-pound man standing over you and telling you to submit,” he said, almost yelling.
Biden’s remarks echoed comments he made earlier this month in Flint, Mich., where he suggested that violent crimes could continue to increase if Congress did not pass the president’s proposal. “In 2008, when Flint had 265 sworn officers on their police force, there were 35 murders and 91 rapes in this city,” he said. “In 2010, when Flint had only 144 police officers, the [number of murders] climbed to 65 and rapes — just to pick two categories — climbed to 229. In 2011, you now only have 125 shields. God only knows what the numbers will be this year for Flint if we don’t rectify it.”
When pressed to defend his comments following a union rally at the Capitol on Wednesday, Biden refused to back down, insisting that “all crimes will continue to rise” if Republicans don’t pass the bill in question.
Putting aside the crude, inflammatory nature of his rhetoric, it turns out that Biden’s numbers are incorrect. According to statistics compiled by the FBI, the figures cited by the vice president are slightly off, but not egregiously so, when it comes to the size of the police force and the murder rate in Flint. According to the FBI data, the city employed 201 police officers in 2008 and 132 officers in 2010. There were 32 reported murders in 2008, which rose to 53 in 2010. With respect to the rape figures, however, Biden is way off. FBI data show that the incidence of reported forcible rapes actually dropped, with 103 rapes reported in 2008, but just 92 in 2010. Hardly the 150 percent increase Biden cited.
According to the same figures, property crime, theft, and robbery also declined in Flint between 2008 and 2010. In fact, the city’s overall crime index has been steadily declining since 2006. This mirrors national trends. The FBI datareleased in September show that in 2010, violent and property crimes declined by 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively, compared with 2009 levels. Robbery was down 10 percent, rape was down 5 percent, and murder, manslaughter, and aggravated assault were each down 4 percent.
While some studies indicate that increasing the number of police officers in a community can reduce crime, there is far from an academic consensus on the matter. Hiring more officers is not the only way to reduce crime, and crime need not rise when police staffing declines. A 1998 report by the New York City Independent Budget Office found that “police staffing is obviously not the only factor influencing crime rates.” The report cites San Diego, which saw a 40 percent drop in crime between 1990 and 1996 despite increasing its police force by just 1 percent during that period, as an example.
When it comes to law enforcement, cities like San Diego are evidently doing something right. Flint, on the other hand, is a case study in poor governance across the board. Years of fiscal mismanagement have left the city with a deficit of $14.3 million, about 22 percent of its total budget, making steep cuts unavoidable. The situation is so bad that Michigan governor Rick Snyder (R) has even considered giving “emergency financial managers” the power to seize control of Flint’s assets to avoid bankruptcy.
Police-force size certainly plays a role in Flint’s ability to fight crime, but its overall significance is debatable. The White House claims that many officers have been laid off nationwide over the last several years, and yet crime has continued to decline across the country.
Given the scripted nature of the vice president’s remarks, they can’t exactly be written off as another typical Biden gaffe. And given the national media’s lack of interest, it’s tempting to file this as another “If Dick Cheney said it . . . ” example of liberal hypocrisy. Either way, it is a telling example of the rhetorical lengths that the administration is willing to go in an effort to sell the president’s jobs plan (which even Democrats aren’t too fond of) and position itself for what promises to be an ugly 2012 campaign.
— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.