Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

Can cities maintain – or decrease – crime rates while cutting police budgets?

Partnering with criminologists from George Mason University, a team led by Sacramento Police Sergeant Renée Mitchell identified 42 “hotspots”—street corners that attracted the highest percentages of violent crime in California’s second most violent city.

As part of a 90-day study conducted between February and May this year, Mitchell and her team assigned officers to visit a randomized rotation of three or four of these hotspots for 12 to 16 minutes apiece during shifts. That meant police would inhabit Sacramento’s most dangerous corners about every two hours. The officers were told to be “highly visible” during these visits—to step outside patrol cars, to talk with people.

This was a change for Sacramento police. It focused on places to target rather than specific crimes, and relied on data rather than police instinct. The results, Mitchell says, were striking.

“Part I” crimes—which include violent offenses such as murder, rape and robbery, as well as property crimes such as burglary and vehicle theft—decreased by 25 percent in these hotspots. Calls for service decreased by nearly 8 percent. And these successes cost the city only $75,000, Mitchell says, less than one percent of the Sacramento Police Department’s $116 million annual budget this year.

“We’ve known for a long time that we were going to have to find ways to police more efficiently,” she says. “Now we know we can do that without a spike in crime.”

Policing layoffs and corresponding public safety concerns are seemingly everywhere. Sacramento took a hit in June when this year’s budget funded 167 fewer police jobs than it did last year. Meanwhile, Oakland—California’s most violent city – has eliminated 178 police jobs since 2008. And on the East Coast, Camden, New Jersey, the most prominent U.S. example of a high-crime city forced into major police cuts recently, eliminated half its force in January. Miami, Chicago, Cleveland, and even Toronto lately have similar concerns.

Is it possible to maintain—or decrease—crime rates as police budgets shrink?

A new report from the National Institute of Justice, “Strategic Cutback Management: Law Enforcement Leadership for Lean Times,” offers a wide range of suggestions if cities want to answer “yes” to that question. Disband specialized police units, it advises. Encourage early retirement. Have police spend less time in idling patrol cars to save on gas. Spread budget cuts equally across departments. Move away from paper. And focus efforts: the study suggests police chiefs should ask themselves, “What are we doing?” “How do we do it?” “Why are we doing it that way?” And, “How could we do it differently if we were building the process from scratch today?”

Jerry Ratcliffe, a former London police officer who’s conducted at least one hotspot study in Philadelphia similar to Mitchell’s and serves as chair of Temple University’s criminal justice department, says police need to be smarter about how they patrol.

“Data- and location-based policing is now essential,” Ratcliffe says. “And police are going to have to be much clearer about proving their worth.”

Politicians, voters and police need to confront hard truths about what police do well, Ratcliffe says, and they need to outsource or slash the excesses.

“We think about police in terms of crime but really they’ve become a social service,” he says. “Either police will continue to do all the things they’ve evolved to do—such as overseeing sex offender and gun registries, for example, while also criminalizing drug use—and they’re going to do them badly or they can concentrate on a few key tasks they can do very well, such as preventing and responding to violent crime.”

Along those lines, Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., says consolidating police departments might also be a big part of focusing operations.

He cites Camden as an example of this. Camden has received federal aid to rehire some police officers, but there’s been a recent, albeit controversial, push to merge City of Camden police with Camden County police.

He thinks this could serve as a nationwide model.

“Hotspots show that crime is centered in cities,” he says. “So many regional and suburban police departments are going to feel pressure to merge with cities in the next three to five years.”

Is that going to be an easy political sell? Of course not.

“But it represents the new normal,” he says. “Things are going to change. Police are going to have to ask themselves, ‘How do we deliver services at reduced costs?’”

That’s a profoundly complicated question, says Sergeant Renée Mitchell. It forces police officers to worry about their jobs, it forces their bosses to change the way they think about patrolling streets and it forces politicians and voters to understand that a cop on every corner isn’t realistic and huge numbers of arrests aren’t always ideal.

“Arrests are glamorous,” she says. “People want to see that guns and drugs are being taken off the streets. But that’s reactive. We should be working to prevent. Our job is to reduce the opportunity for crime, not necessarily to patrol every street corner and make high-profile arrests. Sooner or later we’re going to have to face that.”

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