Richmond, Va.’s police department was praised both by the Clinton administration and the National Rifle Association for helping to cut the city’s murder total in half during the 1990s. Now, the Washington Monthly reports, Richmond lacks the manpower for a similar campaign. “All we’re able to do right now is respond to calls which come in,” said police chief Andre Parker. “We don’t have enough men to do any proactive policing. It’s very worrying.”
Richmond deploys 90 fewer active officers (the department has 670 total) than it did when crime was dropping. It’s no coincidence, police officials and criminologists argue, that the city’s murder rate, after seven consecutive years of decline, jumped 20 percent last year and by another 15 percent in the first six months of 2003. With fewer detectives, only 22 percent of murders were solved last year, compared to 35 percent in 2000. Other crimes, particularly robbery, are increasingly common.
The Monthly says Richmond is a dramatic example of a trend. After eight straight years of decline in the 1990s, the murder rate has begun to increase: by 2.5 percent in 2001, and then another 0.8 percent in 2002.
Dips and surges in the crime rate depend on many factors, from the economy to the number of criminals in prison to the abundance of guns and drugs on the street. More police on the street is one of the most effective ways to keep crime down–it’s also the one factor that lies immediately within the control of government.
The Monthly concludes that cites like Richmond that suffer from the worst cop shortages are experiencing the most dramatic spikes in crime. Police in Portland, Ore., which is 64 officers short of its full 1,000-officer staffing, have noticed a rise in crime across the board in the first four months of 2003. Chief Mark Kroeker thinks the “scariest” jump in violent crime is yet to come. Minneapolis, normally a 900-officer department, is some 200 cops short, and crime is up 46 percent since Sept. 11, 2001. Los Angeles is more than 1,000 cops short of full staffing. Crime there jumped by 7 percent in the last half of 2001 and by another 1 percent in 2002. The murder rate jumped by 11 percent.
Why do cities cut their police forces and encourage a rise in crime? One problem is the economy. The Monthly charges that the “real cause of the police shortage is not in City Hall but in the White House,” where the Bush administration’s first budget sought to eliminate direct funding for street cops. The war in Iraq has required the call-up of huge numbers of reserves, many of whom are cops. Federal directives to beef up local patrols at potential terrorist targets have taken officers away from their regular duties. And because the feds have not paid for many of these extra patrols, homeland security has stretched local budgets even further, the Monthly says.