Cops, Crime, and the Economy

Some time ago I was on patrol in a part of Los Angeles known then as now for its high level of crime. A woman driving through the neighborhood stopped me and posed some questions. She had been living in one of L.A.’s far-off suburbs, and she was contemplating a move into town where she would be closer to her job. In some ways the neighborhood would have been ideal for her. It was affordable, for one thing, and it offered handy freeway access for getting to her workplace downtown. Even when L.A. traffic is at its worst, which is to say most mornings and afternoons, she would have saved two hours on the road each day if she had moved from her current home in the suburbs.

Then came the snag: “How’s the crime around here?” she asked.

I confess to experiencing a fleeting temptation to equivocate. The woman, if I can render a judgment based on that most cursory of meetings, struck me as someone who would enhance the surroundings. She seemed educated and pleasant, she was well dressed, and the car she drove reflected, if not prosperity, a certain pride of ownership. She was in short the kind of person almost anyone would want to see moving in on the block, and the kind of customer any merchant would welcome. And as a police officer in the area, I reasoned that this woman’s home would be one less whose occupants would add to the neighborhood’s ills and my own workload.

But I could not lie to her. The answer to her question about neighborhood crime was anything but an inducement to settle there.  There had been, I told her, a gang-related murder only two days before, just a few blocks from where we were standing.  Burglaries and street robberies were common in the surrounding area, and the nearby major thoroughfare, on which she would have to drive on her way to and from the freeway, was well known for the prostitutes who did a roaring trade at all hours of the day and night, a trade which often involved servicing customers in cars parked on the adjacent side streets, making for the occasional unpleasant surprise for adults and unwelcome educational experience for children.

The woman thanked me for the information, and I wished her luck in her search for a new home, which I was certain would not be in that particular neighborhood.

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.