The U.S. Has Fewer Crimes. Does That Mean It Needs Fewer Police?

The New York City Police Academy’s graduation ceremony in March. Nationwide, the ratio of police officers to residents has stayed about the same even as crime rates have fallen.

With the close of the year, the tally was in: Crime was down in the 30 largest cities in the United States, and even a worrisome uptick in urban murders had subsided.

More than two decades of safer cities has cleared the way for major changes in the nation’s criminal justice system: fewer prisoners, shorter sentences and more pardons.

But fewer crimes have not resulted in fewer police officers on the streets.

In 2016, there were slightly more officers per capita than in 1991, when violent crime peaked, according to data collected by the F.B.I. Now, officers deal with half the crimes per capita that they did then.

But hardly anyone questions the size of police forces. Not taxpayers, who might expect the decades-long drop in crime to produce some budget savings. Not politicians, though they have a host of competing priorities, like schools and hospitals.

The notion of pruning the police inevitably raises the specter of more crime, even if there is little evidence to support such fears. The relationship between the number of officers and lawful behavior is not clear-cut. In New York City, for example, the police force peaked at more than 40,000 in 2000. Since then, both the number of officers and the crime rate have declined.

In Chicago, notorious for violence and shootings in recent years, there are 44 officers for each 10,000 residents. That is almost the same ratio as New York. But though crime in Chicago declined in 2017, according to a year-end analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, the crime rate there was still far higher than in New York, which recorded its lowest crime rate since the 1950s.

Philadelphia also has about the same number of officers per capita; homicides there surpassed 300 for the first time in five years, but violent crime in general went down in 2017.

The American city with the highest murder rate in the Brennan analysis is Baltimore, which has 41 officers for each 10,000 residents and would like to have more. St. Louis, where murders hit a record high, has 38. Each of these cities has many more officers than average for cities of similar size, according to an analysis by Governing magazine.

The factors driving the crime rate are complex, mysterious and can vary from city to city. Data-driven policing strategies, economic growth and decreased alcohol consumption were bigger contributors to the overall drop in crime than having more police or higher incarceration rates, said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center.

Last year, a study by three economists found that opening a new drug treatment center could save a city about $700,000 a year in crime-related costs. Another new study found that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act caused a 5.8 percent reduction in violent crime.

Still, the police do have a bigger job than they once did, with a mandate that includes fighting terrorism, cybercrime and identity theft — much of which is not reflected in those F.B.I. crime graphs, said Meghan Hollis, a criminologist and expert in police staffing at Texas State University.

Downsizing is not in their DNA, she added: “Police departments, as long as they have the funds, they’re going to keep their force size the way it is or grow it, regardless of the crime rate. They can always adjust their statistics to make it look like they need the officers that they have.”

Officers are increasingly relied on to deal with mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction. But tough-on-crime rhetoric has made it hard to have discussions about reallocating resources to address those problems, according to Ronal Serpas, a former police chief in Nashville and New Orleans and a co-chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group of current and former police chiefs and prosecutors.

“American police officers are screaming, ‘Help us with mental health, with drug and alcohol addiction. Help us to stop using arrest to deal with these problems.’ ” Mr. Serpas said. “And then there are others who are screaming: ‘Crime is up. Help us arrest everyone again.’ ”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, has warned that “violent crime is back with a vengeance” and advocated a more traditional law-and-order approach.

But Mr. Serpas said he would like to see more cities follow the lead of Tucson and Seattle, which have funneled resources into special support units that are trained to deal with the mentally ill, taking pressure off patrol officers.

Tre Murphy, a community organizer in Baltimore, said he believed that reducing the number of officers on the street would be beneficial to black Baltimore residents, citing the deep fear and distrust many black residents feel toward the city’s police. He said the money saved from shrinking the police force should be reinvested in nonprofits and other community development projects.

“The answer to fixing trust inside the community is to not put more distrust into it,” Mr. Murphy said. “The answer to violence is not to put more violence into the community, and that’s what they’re doing by increasing the police force.”

“In Baltimore, where communities are struggling, the only thing we get more of are police officers, who just perpetuate the cycle,” he added. “Instead of police officers, what would it look like to get more counselors in the community, people who are doing the work in the community?”

Black Lives Matter activists, who oppose police brutality and racial bias, have regularly called for redirecting money from the police to community intervention programs, which could deploy “community conflict de-escalators, gang intervention specialists, and mental health response centers” to deal with nonviolent situations.

There are few points of agreement between the Black Lives Matter movement and police unions, which maintain that officers are overworked and unfairly criticized. But they agree that the police should be better trained for the types of situations they are asked to handle. Employing fewer officers could free up money for better training, and perhaps also for higher pay.

After all, said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, the police are called on to make life-or-death decisions. “I would rather have highly paid, highly identified, highly skilled police officers who can respond to these crises,” Mr. Wexler said. “I equate what the police do to an emergency room physician.”

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