Public safety means more than just hiring more police

May 28, 2019 1:54 pm

An unidentified Phoenix police officer uses a radar gun. Photo courtesy City of Phoenix Police Department | Facebook

In many cities, legislators and city officials believe a larger police force automatically translates to safer streets. Earlier this month, when an area radio station pressed Mayor Kate Gallego on a “public safety shortage” due to unfilled vacancies in the Phoenix Police Department, she announced plans to hire 300 more officers.

I know from my own law enforcement career that the answer to public safety issues is not simply “more police” — we must have a strong crime prevention strategy, involving not only the police but also other governmental and nongovernmental agencies.

During the nearly three decades I spent with the Scottsdale Police Department, I saw the critical role law enforcement plays in keeping communities safe. We certainly needed the appropriate resources and support to do our job effectively. But we cannot assume that simply having more police on the streets is going to address our public safety concerns.

In fact, the Kansas City Police conducted a famous experiment on this topic by increasing the number of car patrols in certain neighborhoods and eliminating them in others. They found that the additional car patrols and police presence had no effect on either crime or the community’s perception of safety.

Given this study, we shouldn’t be surprised that, in Phoenix, crime rates have risen and fallen over the past decade with no apparent relationship to the number of officers on the force. During the year of lowest crime, in 2015, the city employed the fewest police officers. For the last three years, crime has increased, even as the city has added new officers to the department.

Yet Mayor Gallego takes it for granted that adding officers increases safety, with no plan for evaluating whether or not the financial investment in police is paying off.

Focusing on quantity instead of quality can potentially damage public safety. As a burglary and theft detective, I was most effective when working in a neighborhood where the residents trusted me. In neighborhoods where such trust in police does not exist, many people simply do not report crime. When the laws we are directed to enforce turn the community against us, our detectives lose the ability to solve cases.

One way to turn the community against us is to send 300 more police out onto the street to arrest people for drinking in public, marijuana possession and other minor offenses.

Having more police officers does not guarantee better relationships with the community, nor does it guarantee better crime clearance rates. Over the past five years, Phoenix has struggled to solve murders. Between 2013 and 2017, Phoenix’s murder clearance rate tumbled from 90 percent to 57 percent. One likely factor is that community members are not cooperating with homicide detectives.

To prevent homicide, we need to understand that the best use of resources may be outside the police department. In Richmond, California, gun violence dropped 66 percent over seven years after the city implemented an innovative anti-homicide program called Advance Peace. The program works by engaging the small percentage of “serial shooters” who are typically responsible for the majority of shootings in a community.

Advance Peace disrupts their path to violence by bringing in mentors with similar backgrounds to provide peer counseling and map out life goals. Mentors connect the repeat offenders to services like job training and education to start a path to those goals.

Against the expectations of many in law enforcement, Advance Peace has kept the vast majority of its participants from being involved in shootings or even arrested. And the entire program operates on a shoestring compared to the cost of just a single police unit.

If Phoenix truly wants to address its “public safety shortage,” we need to be willing to think beyond just the size of the police department to the department’s strategies. We need to rethink policies that cause people to lose trust in police. And we need to be willing to examine programs such as Advance Peace that get to the root of complex societal ills, like violent crime, in ways that cycling people through the justice system cannot.

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Gary Nelson

Gary Nelson is a retired detective sergeant who spent 27 years with the Scottsdale Police Department. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system, and he focuses on how more police does not make for improved public safety.