On Sunday, August 9th the Seattle Police Officers Guild held a protest outside City Hall to ensure that their cause was heard to prevent cuts, especially drastic ones, to the department's budget. I did attend in support of the men and women in blue. Now like any department, government or private if they are faced with cuts to their budget, obviously they are going to fight it. Even if a cut to the budget or redistribution of it is, in the long run, a better option. So I get that! I am against a knee-jerk reaction that shows very little planning or thought out processes though.
Seattle, like many cities, is facing the vote, or threat, depending on how you see things, to cut their City's police budget. Covid-19 is also contributing here as governments have to trim money from their budgets. Protesters are demanding the Seattle Police Department be defunded by 50%. At the time of Sunday's protest the vote was reported to have the following plans:
Elimination of Harbor Patrol, mounted officer units and eliminate the Navigation Team, which includes police personnel and is responsible for conducting outreach and sweeping homeless encampments;
Sacking 32 officers by November.
Although no major plans have been announced as to what a Defund of 50% would look like. Quite simply it seems the above plans are not satisfying those that want massive defunding to occur. Well researching it, the initial plan for a 50% defund would include:
Ensuring that a newly formed civilian-led Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention Prevention would handle 911 calls. 56% of these calls are non-criminal;
Major job cuts to the size of the force (loss of police members);
Closing Precincts and refocussing bike units and anti-crime team.
On Monday, August 10th the council did not heed to the Police Officers Guild, or the mob, which I am quite amazed at for both sides. The following will now occur:
Cutting 32 officers from patrol (not sure if this means fired or redeployed?);
Reducing specialized units and administrative costs (further details to come I'm guessing);
Cutting training (probably not the best idea) and travel expenses;
Transferring victim advocates to the human services department and removing two sworn officers from the 911 emergency call centre
It seems there is a good "middle ground" accomplishment here, despite the resignation of the Chief of Police. For everything said, the Seattle City council I do applaud for not doing a full-on Mayor de Blasio who immediately just went slash and burn, the hell with the consequences. Although how much longer before we hear further cuts are on the line? The biggest argument that the "Defund" movement has is that extra policing numbers has little effect on the crime rate.
So does less police result in less crime?
Well, many articles would suggest that fewer police numbers do indeed result in less crime. Although, it is stated that a lot of citizens simply don't report crimes when the response times and police numbers are so low and protection from the enforcement agencies does not exist. This would make sense, the more police you see, the safer you would feel and when a crime occurs you would have the feeling of "how could this happen?" and you call the police. Also, the less police you have, crimes are reported and catalogued less.
Studies have shown, including one in 2008 from England that after the terrorist attacks in London in 2005 the Police increased their numbers on the street and the show of force on the streets or "strength in numbers" caused the crime rate to decrease.
Another report from 1997 suggests that a 10% increase in police numbers also results in a 3% reduction in Property crime, although serious crime numbers were somewhat contradicted in whether they went up or down. But the same report did show direct evidence that when a large scale and widely advertised reduction, even temporary (such as a strike action), in police numbers then crime rates do increase.
Therefore what can we take from this?
Well, quite simply the psyche of people is that when they see more police they feel safer and the urge of those with criminal intent is somewhat disparaged. When there is a large cut or it's advertised that police numbers are going down, then crime rates do spike, whether temporarily or permanently. If the crime rate goes down because there are more "feet on the beat" as police say then this is the better option isn't it? To disparage criminals in the first place.
A study in 2005 supports this. During the heightened Terrorism threats in the US when the threat level was of higher status then fewer crimes were committed due to the increase of law enforcement numbers shown in public. Under the Obama presidency, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant programme. Cities that had been granted access to the programme had a crime rate of 3.5% lower than those cities that didn't qualify.
So, ultimately, yes it seems that as police numbers go up, the crime rate eventually goes down and community safety goes up. People feel safer and there are more resources to disparage criminals. Although counter to this, it would also be fair to say if a city is facing a massive crime rate and a sudden increase in police numbers was to occur, there would be a higher arrest rate and thus higher crime rate. We frequently hear from politicians during election time when they are attacked for a higher crime rate under their tenour, "we have a strong police force and thus more is being reported to them."
My conclusion then, it is not right to assume a lower crime rate when the police staffing levels are also low. It goes in ebbs and flows. What is important though is having the advertised show of strength in numbers to show support to the community. If extra resources are required then you plan for it. But a cut in numbers does, ultimately, increase the crime rate and puts your community on the back foot.
One of the biggest things though I have found in my research is that a major expense for police right now, especially in Seattle, is their overtime rates. As I'm sure many professionals would know, when the staffing levels go down, higher-ups do require more efficiencies from the same workforce. An ex-boyfriend of mine used to be in this part of the business world. Where to save money they would say "how many people do we need to do the job? Six, ok there's eight, so let's make it five" those five people then end up having to cover the workload of six.
The main arguments of the police unions of many departments around the world are that they are short of numbers. I think it is fair to say that police officers are doing more with less now. All industries are experiencing this too, but when it comes to public service they do have a few more protections meaning it's easier for overtime and penalty rates to accrue. Well, too much overtime does contribute to fatigue levels. Having worked in the Aviation industry for a long time, we are taught a lot about fatigue and the fact that fatigue means poorer decision making, higher stress levels and thus more likely to result in getting into a dangerous situation. The accident of Colgan Air in Buffalo in 2009 highlighted the dangers of fatigue and has resulted in changes to Flight and Duty limits for pilots the world over. When it comes to policing, a 2017 audit of the King County's Sheriff's department found that every single hour of overtime an officer worked then it would lead to a 2.7% chance that officer would be involved in a use-of-force incident in that week.
Let's recap, we have effectively throughout America a lot of states and cities being told to defund their police force or abolish it completely. The moves in many places are being put into effect with very little thought as to how to do it or what it would look like. We know that crime doesn't necessarily go up or down dependant on the police force, but a strong police force is a deterrent to committing crimes. Massive funding cuts will result in police members losing their jobs and the service losing their staffing levels. This, in turn, will result in less police to do the same amount of work (possibly even more) and this would increase fatigue levels. Increase in fatigue levels has shown proof that an officer is more likely to use force in a confrontation that may not require it. A public advertisement, in this case, media covering the workings of local and state governments, that police numbers are going down or reduced has also resulted in spikes of crime levels in the past whether temporary or permanent aka the "open season" effect. We are also facing a world, post-COVID where people will be struggling more financially and may either turn to crime, drugs or end up homeless. Cutting or abolishing the police force is not ideal in this time and place. This is why I went on Sunday, the idea to just wipe out police numbers and cut their services is not the answer.
Not one person I know, including myself, would say, whether the criminal record or not, body cam footage or not, that George Floyd deserved to die. If police training is the suggestion that you kneel on someone's neck or upper torso after restraining them, instead of locking them in a patrol car, then police reform is required! The one thing that I do think is a good idea is having a "civilian" call centre to staff the 911 calls and to relay it with police dispatch or have the oversight by police. This would take officers out of the call centre and have them on the streets which is a better use of resources. I have nothing against reformative action when it comes to the police, every industry faces changes and the police service is no different. Reform can come in new training techniques and engaging the police force with community groups even more.
In my home country and state of Victoria (we will be getting on to the other things about my home state here in the future), the Chief Commissioner in the 2000s Christine Nixon copped a lot of flak for turning the state's police force into more of a social-worker format as opposed to a strict law enforcement agency. Respect for police from those with less than law-abiding intent has gone up most definitely, however, the police are still a law upholding organisation who also engage with a lot of social and community programmes, as well as providing counselling and other services to the community. It is community-based policing, which is what police are for, to serve the community.
Perhaps that is what is needed in the USA. Not abolishing the police force, not cutting their budgets by drastic numbers in a short, unthought out process to appease a mob. Instead of mass cuts to their budgets, use the numbers you already have to start the change. At the end of the day though, don't commit a crime and you won't have an issue.
Changes to the police force similar to my home state of Victoria would be the best alternative for the police services of the United States. Use the budgets and trained members you have right now to enact change. Don't abolish or fire police numbers and start a "new" department, that takes time and money. It's more effective to use what you already have. This is what happened in my home state and it works very well. Although as one of my former colleagues who served with Victoria Police said "at least here [Australia] we didn't face the threat that most everyone has a gun" - I think that's another issue though.