The Corner

Politics & Policy

Police Are Not ‘the Problem’

(Chip East/Reuters)

The New York Times has a piece called “The Police Can’t Solve the Problem. They Are the Problem.” One could dispute it on any number of levels, but here I’d like to focus on this bit near the top:

The crime bill articulated an obsession with punishment and prescribed policing as the cure to a host of social ills. It provided funding for 100,000 new police officers, $14 billion in grants for community-oriented policing, $9.7 billion for prisons and $6.1 billion crime prevention programs. The legislation was partly responsible for a 30 percent increase in police officers from 699,000 in 1990 to 899,000 in 1999, and funded over 7,000 school officers. Today, there are over one million law enforcement officers in the United States.

But did the plan work? The Government Accountability Office concluded that while there was a 26 percent decline in overall crime from 1993 to 2000, only 1.3 percent of the decline could be attributed to additional police officers. The majority of that decrease, the office said, came from other, unspecified factors; smaller studies have found that everything from preschool to job programs for young people decreases crime rates.

This is a horrific misreading of the GAO report.

First of all, it did not find that “additional police officers” in general could be credited with just “1.3 percent of the decline.” Rather, the officers added specifically by the crime bill’s COPS program could be credited with a 1.3 percent decline in the overall crime rate. You don’t have to read too deep in the report to find this; it’s right on the first page: “Between 1993 and 2000, the overall crime rate declined by 26 percent, and the 1.3 percent decline due to COPS, amounted to about 5 percent of the overall decline. Similarly, COPS contributed about 7 percent of the 32 percent decline in violent crime [i.e., over a 2 percent drop in the overall rate] from 1993 to 2000.”

So is that a solid accomplishment, or something to belittle by plopping the word “only” in front of it? Kind of depends how much COPS cost, doesn’t it?

I suppose it’s true that COPS was “partly responsible” for a huge increase in the number of officers, but “partly” is a flexible word. The GAO report finds that “from 1994 through 2001, COPS expenditures constituted about 1 percent of total local expenditures for police services” — and that in 2000, the peak year for expenditures, it increased the number of sworn officers by 3 percent.

The overall costs were modest, at least in a country with hundreds of millions of people in it, at $7.3 billion in total over a period of about seven years. $4.7 billion of this was specifically for hiring grants, and the expenditures ramped up over the course of the years studied.

Estimating the total “cost of crime” in this country is hardly an exact science, but to use some very round ballpark numbers, spending a billion a year (less than $4 per person in 2000) to reduce crime by 1 percent will be worth it so long as the total cost of crime exceeds $100 billion, which it certainly does. $1 trillion would be a better estimate.

There’s a lot of other research showing cops to be a cost-effective way to reduce crime as well; this seems to happen because people commit fewer crimes when cops are around, not by increasing arrests and incarcerations. Matthew Yglesias went through some of this research at Vox here.

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