A thousand-piece puzzle

Side-by-side comparisons, rankings and isolated data aren't enough to answer the question of whether an area has enough law enforcers.

Want to know how many officers a particular area needs? There are many variables, so a simple answer is elusive.

Want to know how many officers a particular area needs? There are many variables, so a simple answer is elusive. U-B file photo by Jeff Horner

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SOURCE: Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Reviewing crime rates and employment statistics of law enforcement agencies is only one part of the puzzle when trying to piece together a complete picture of the effectiveness of individual departments.

That’s the caution from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and number crunchers assigned to such tasks.

Although news media and tourism agencies are quick to compare annual crime data, multitudes of variables exist that need to be added to any equation when reaching an assessment of criminality and law enforcement’s response, according to the FBI.

Otherwise, “these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents,” the bureau says in a disclaimer on its website.

Geographic and demographic factors — such as a population’s composition by age, gender, education, unemployment and availability of social services — need to be considered, according to the FBI.

“Understanding a jurisdiction’s industrial/economic base; its dependence upon neighboring jurisdictions; its transportation system; its economic dependence on nonresidents (such as tourists and convention attendees); its proximity to military installations, correctional facilities, etc., all contribute to accurately gauging and interpreting the crime known to and reported by law enforcement.”

Walla Walla-area agencies struggling to maintain existing levels of service have not tackled such a detailed, expensive analysis. Even if they did, it may be impossible to compile, correlate and analyze the data accurately.

Rex Barton, a police management consultant with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service affiliated with the University of Tennessee, believes many factors influence the need for police staffing.

“There is no absolute staffing recommendation for cities in general,” Barton wrote in a 2002 letter to an inquiring police chief in that state.

“Major highway arteries, retail and other commercial development, and proximity to larger cities often increase the demand for police services.

“Officer safety and citizen expectations are the most important factors in determining an ‘ideal’ staffing level.”

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, a sample group of law enforcement agencies nationwide in 2009 showed an average of l. 89 officers per 1,000 residents, dropping to 1.81 by 2011.

But the numbers come with a caveat: “This can vary dramatically across the country and between types and settings of agencies ...”

In general, densely populated cities have higher staffing levels than small towns. Also, levels on the Pacific Coast have been some of the lowest in the nation.

Although incidents of crime in Walla Walla County decreased more than 41 percent between 1980 and last year, the total number of commissioned officers here has increased at a similar rate.

In 1980, 54 officers — amounting to 1.14 per thousand residents — were on duty, compared to 77 last year at a rate of 1.31.

The last decade saw fairly steady employment numbers here, but the 77 officers last year represents five fewer than in 2010. Also, the rates in the state and throughout the nation have started to drop.

The Department of Justice report says, “As agencies have been pressured to make difficult decisions in light of the current fiscal conditions, many are being forced to provide the same services with fewer employees.”

USA Today reported in October last year that nearly 12,000 officers were expected to lose their jobs by the end of 2011 due to a faltering economy and 30,000 positions in county and municipal departments would go unfilled.

“When you drastically cut the number of police in cities, which is happening all across America, crime goes up,” the nation’s vice president, Joe Biden, said as a result.

The Association of Washington Cities reports that during the past three years, about 30 percent of jurisdictions in this state have or will cut public safety budgets.

Although law enforcement budgets in Walla Walla County remain tight, “drastic” cuts have not occurred here, perhaps because of community support. The spring 2012 Walla Walla Trends e-Newsletter, sponsored by the Port of Walla Walla, points out that the $11.6 million bond passed in 2009 to build a new police station and “recent Washington State Crime Prevention awards earned by the city of Walla Walla bode well for the faith that local citizens appear to have in the police force.”

‘No consensus on staffing levels’

Various criteria for analyzing police levels of service were addressed in a report prepared in 1994 by the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.

Even back then, opinion was adamant that “there is no consensus on staffing levels for local police departments.”

The document acknowledged a link between employee rates per 1,000 residents and crime rates, but emphasized that many variables enter into the statistics.

“Such standards have limited meaning because the actual number required will vary depending on the size of a city, geographic region and city type (central, suburban, free-standing rural).

“Even cities of the same population size and type may differ widely in staffing needs because of differences in demographics, socio-economic characteristics, climate or other unique conditions.”

Tracy Burrows, the current executive director of MRSC, recently told Walla Walla Trends: “The number of sworn police officers per 1,000 population is a very common measure of police staffing, but I would be very cautious about making any conclusions about whether a community has too much or too little police protection based on this measure.

“There are lots of factors that go into the appropriate level of police staffing for a community, including the volume of calls for service, the nature of crime in the community, whether there is the need for a more intense patrol presence in specific areas, and the size and geographic configuration of the police beats ... It’s really important to assess public safety performance by using a range of measures, including crime rates and citizens’ confidence in the police force and their perceptions of their own safety.”

Walla Walla police Chief Scott Bieber agreed, telling the Union-Bulletin: “I never have been a person who says there’s a magic number of officers per 1,000,”

He maintains that community needs, not just population figures, should dictate levels of service, and established, proactive programs — such as crime prevention, Block Watch and Crime Free Rental Housing — must be preserved to maintain a safe community.

The 1994 MRSC report states the only reliable way to determine police staffing needs is through workload analysis, which leads to maximizing existing resources before requiring new ones.

For instance, the report points out, such an analysis may determine that too much of an officer’s time is taken up by responding to nonemergency service calls that could be handled by civilian personnel.

Also, too much emphasis may be placed on response times just to keep citizens happy. “The emphasis on response time may come at the expense of time which would be better spent on crime prevention,” the report says, citing a previous study.

“Many service requests are not urgent” and don’t necessarily result in more arrests.

“There is no question, however, that a quick response time is critical when a crime in progress has been reported or when there is a medical emergency.

“A better objective may be to match the appropriate response to the type of service call.”

The report acknowledges that crime rates are “obvious indicators” of police performance, but only address one area of an officer’s duties. “Police officers spend only 10 to 15 percent of their time dealing with the kinds of major crimes tracked in police statistics.”

Numbers also are cyclical, reducing the significance of short-term comparisons, the document points out, adding that it may be fairer to use crime rates to measure how an area is doing in addressing crime rather than to judge a department’s performance.

“Reducing crime rates in most areas will require more than efficient police operations and resources. Crime reduction efforts may always fall short without crime preventative programs which address conditions of poverty and drug dependency and which promote strong neighborhoods, job and educational opportunity and community design.”

Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said in an interview with the Union-Bulletin the report is as valid today as in 1994 when it was published.

He declined to comment on or speculate whether law enforcement staffing levels in our local area are appropriate given the immense complexity of the issue and his lack of direct knowledge about Walla Walla County.

But in general, providing law enforcement services is extremely expensive and it’s common for agencies to feel the budget pinch, Barker said.

“Part of (determining a level of service) is managing expectations of your citizens,” he added.

For example, it could appear much cheaper for a community to decide it doesn’t want to pay for certain types of enforcement. Perhaps in lean budget years an agency might forego investigating identity thefts or other property crimes of which there is no suspect or the dollar loss is under a certain amount.

But such decisions come with a price tag of their own, Barker pointed out.

“If you’ve been on vacation for a couple of weeks and your barbecue is missing, you probably don’t need a quick response. But if you’ve been a citizen there for 35 years, paid your taxes and never have called police, you probably want your money’s worth.”

Also, reducing the number of officers and services — only to possibly cut too far — can be pound-foolish. “Then you don’t have enough officers and have to start all over,” he said.

Police chiefs and sheriffs have a duty to ask for the amount of money they think they need, according to Barker.

“But ultimately it’s up to a community to decide what level of service — in all services, parks, fire or whatever. And there are no easy decisions,” he said.

“They’re all tough.”


Contributing Factors

Historically, the causes and origins of crime have been the subjects of investigation by many disciplines. Some factors that are known to affect the volume and type of crime occurring from place to place are:

  • Population density and degree of urbanization.
  • Variations in composition of the population, particularly youth concentration.
  • Stability of the population with respect to residents' mobility, commuting patterns and transient factors.
  • Modes of transportation and highway system.
  • Economic conditions, including median income, poverty level and job availability.
  • Cultural factors and educational, recreation and religious characteristics.
  • Family conditions with respect to divorce and family cohesiveness.
  • Climate
  • Effective strength of law enforcement agencies.
  • Administrative and investigative emphases of law enforcement.
  • Policies of other components of the criminal justice system (i.e., prosecutorial, judicial, correctional and probational).
  • Citizens' attitudes toward crime.
  • Crime reporting practices of the citizenry.

Source: FBI -- Caution Against Ranking

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