Cops, Crime, and the Economy

Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, outlined earlier this year by Heather Mac Donald in the Wall Street Journal, the notion that poverty causes crime is a myth that stubbornly refuses to slip into the grave it has long deserved. But in attacking that myth, Mac Donald concluded her column on a note of caution:

The recession could still affect crime rates if cities cut their police forces and states start releasing prisoners early. Both forms of cost-saving would be self-defeating. Public safety is the precondition for thriving urban life. In 1990s New York, crime did not drop because the economy improved; rather, the city's economy revived because crime was cut in half. Keeping crime rates low now is the best guarantee that cities across the country will be able to exploit the inevitable economic recovery when it comes.

I will leave it to others to determine if an economic recovery is underway, but today, only seven months after writing the article, Mac Donald seems to have been eerily prescient. Here in California, prisoners are indeed being released early, though in Los Angeles the ill effects have yet to be manifested. Crime in the city continues to fall, though perhaps not at the rates experienced in recent years. And the Los Angeles Police Department, which had been expanding for several years until the recession hit, is hiring new officers at a pace that at best keeps up with normal attrition. But funds for police overtime have been all but eliminated, forcing the department to compensate officers with time off rather than money, the net effect of which is a seven- to ten-percent reduction in the number of officers deployed on any given day.

But the LAPD is in better shape than the police departments in many cities. Last month I wrote about violent crime in Chicago, where financial constraints are merely one factor on a long list of civic woes. Meanwhile, down the I-55 in East St. Louis, Illinois, a city already beset by high crime, almost 30 percent of the police force was recently laid off, a move that was reversed only after officers agreed to a 20-percent pay cut. And even with that concession, the officers may be laid off again if the city’s financial picture doesn’t improve, a contingency few are expecting anytime soon.

And back here in California, another city that can little afford it has laid off a significant number of its police officers. The city of Oakland, on the less glamorous east side of San Francisco Bay, is a textbook exhibit of urban troubles, chief among which is truly frightening rate of violent crime. Yet even in the face of this onslaught, last month the city laid off 80 cops (about ten percent of the department) and announced that officers would no longer to respond to some requests for service.

The woman I described above was just one person, but the choice she would make in deciding where to live and the calculations she made in reaching her decision are repeated countless times each month as people all over the country evaluate their present circumstances and ask themselves if they might be better off somewhere else. Should a shortened commute come at the price of exposing oneself to the everyday nuisance of street prostitution and the occasional but very real threat of violent crime? In its failure to devote sufficient resources to curtail crime in that Los Angeles neighborhood, city leaders have allowed the area to remain hostile to those who, like that woman, would by their very presence improve it.

Economic recovery on a local scale, whether in Los Angeles, Oakland, or East St. Louis, is largely dependent on the willingness of citizens to live and spend money there. Wherever people don’t feel safe, those who are able pick up and go elsewhere. They take their money with them, leaving those remaining just that much poorer.