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Ring the alarm

Straight dope on Tacoma’s impending crime wave

CIRCLING THE WAGONS: Many in Tacoma fear police layoffs will lead to rampant lawlessness.

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No one will deny that police and firefighter layoffs are going to hurt. As Tacoma city officials work with union and department leaders to iron out the details of what has become the most contentious aspect of closing a projected $31 million budget shortfall - the loss of what could be more than 100 public safety officers - the people of Tacoma are left to wonder how adjustments will affect public safety.

Sitting in on the Dec. 6 Tacoma City Council meeting, listening to the impassioned testimony of dozens of police officers, fire fighters, citizens and department officials, it would have been easy to assume that Tacoma is doomed. A proposal by the city manager's office calls for the layoffs to be implemented by Jan. 5, though the City Council has delayed the layoffs while Tacoma negotiates with police and fire labor unions in hopes of minimizing the losses.

People attending the now legendary City Council session were met by wives of police officers, for example, as they made a serpentine march around City Hall, carrying signs that displayed a bar graph juxtaposing an ideal police force - 400 officers - with numbers reflecting proposed layoffs - 268 officers (it's closer to 317 officers, according to city officials).

The graph and comparison were accompanied by a question: SCARED YET?

Much more difficult to answer is this: Should we be scared?

It's a fair question to ask given the circumstances. Listening to the testimony offered by officers and firefighters, a picture emerges of what Tacoma might become if the city loses nearly 60 police officers, 47 firefighters, two fire stations and two engine companies. Tacoma PD would be reduced to staffing levels more appropriate in the 1990s. Tacoma's gang unit, community liaison program, school resource program and traffic units would be eliminated or significantly hampered as assigned officers are rerouted to maintain ranks of Tacoma's front line patrol officers. Fire officials say staff cuts and loss of stations and engine companies will reduce response times for medical calls, vehicle collisions and other emergencies. And because fire fighters and police depend on each other for assistance and back up during many calls, there are compounding effects.

Some officers testified before council that Tacoma would become a magnet for criminals seeking to take advantaged of our hobbled police force. Others simply asked to keep their jobs, and talked about the effect on their families. Still others projected nightmare scenarios, suggesting that neighborhoods that are now getting their first taste of consistent public safety would be overrun by violence.

As commenter after commenter took to the podium, the specter of Tacoma's past was repeatedly raised, with many speaking on behalf of police asking whether citizens were prepared to go back to a time when Tacoma was known for crime and violence, rather than museums and renaissance. Some offered near-apocalyptic prophesies that explicitly foretold a city overrun by theft, rape, violence and murder. 

Scared yet?

Looming threat

Former Interim City Manager Rey Arellano, in the most recent Weekly Report to the City Council, provides a more moderate perspective.

"The reductions in personnel as proposed will greatly restrict the department's ability to continue its current effort to reduce crime. In fact, the reductions will most likely lead to an increase in crime as experienced by many cities throughout the United States that have staffing within their police department."

Terry Krause, president of Tacoma Police Union No. 6, concurs. And while he doesn't expect that things in Tacoma would degenerate to the same degree that they have in Camden, N.J., where city officials have experienced a bona fide crime wave after cutting half the police force, he says there is no doubt layoffs in Tacoma will be felt.

"It is our (members of Tacoma Police Union Local No. 6) opinion that this level of cuts will have detrimental impact on the current level of public safety in the City of Tacoma. ... Proactive policing is the goal of every police department. If the city reduces staffing to the extent proposed, our staffing levels will only allow for reactive policing. ... The department's commitments to community oriented policing and the neighborhood partnerships we have worked to develop over the past two decades will suffer," Krause says in a press release sent in mid November.

Krause is anything but hysterical as he discusses potential impacts of police layoffs. He speaks in even tones, and is clearly aware of the difficult position held by budget decision makers. Not once does he use the phrase "crime wave." If anything, he seems extraordinarily calm and reasonable, despite the looming threat to members of the union he serves. Krause says Local No. 6 and city officials are working to find every reasonable means of preserving public safety, while recognizing the police aren't the only ones with skin in the game.

"The question is: Where do we go from here to make this a sustainable economy and make our citizens as safe as they can be?" he asks. "What I do know is that we're all here because we want to make things better for Tacoma."

Ryan Mudie, president elect of Firefighters Union Local No. 31, is equally measured while discussing the potential loss of several dozen firefighters. Like Krause, Mudie says union representatives are doing everything they can to minimize the loss of public safety officers. For Tacoma firefighters, the potential for serious impacts are more definitively serious.

"We have never faced cuts of this magnitude. We are facing increased response times for fire, emergency medical calls, motor vehicles collisions," says Mudie. "We have a saying - 'Time is Tissue.' We are facing some potentially very bad outcomes for citizens who make (emergency) calls."

Data provided in a recent report from the Tacoma City Manager's office supports Mudie's concerns. In 2010, each of the Tacoma Fire Department's 16 fire engine companies responded to an average of approximately 2,400 calls. Under the current proposal, Tacoma Fire would lose four engine companies, resulting in each of the remaining companies responding to an average of 3,200 calls, or a 33 percent increase. If additional reductions become necessary and three additional engine companies are eliminated, each of the remaining companies would need to respond to an average of 4,200 calls, or a 75 percent increase. The redistribution of workload would result in delayed responses in all areas of the city.

These numbers are real cause for concern, says Mudie, who is working with union negotiators and city officials to salvage as many positions as possible.

"We're not here to put scare tactics out there," says Mudie. "But it's important to know the reality and impacts (represented by cuts). The city is talking to us, and we are looking at all creative and innovative solutions we can. It's progressing at this time."

The innovative solutions Mudie refers to include combinations of revenue increase through taxes and fees, expense shuffling, adjustments of wages and benefits and how they are dispersed, and all sorts of other budgetary wizardry. City officials have elected to conduct a third-party analysis of budget projections, the results of which may or may not provide some wiggle room in determining cuts.

But in the end, everyone at the table recognizes that police and fire represent 70 percent of the city's budget, and sparing all public safety officers from the axe simply isn't an option when facing the kind of budget shortfall Tacoma is experiencing. Cuts will be made.

Which leaves us with the original question: Should we be scared?

Adding it up

On average, crime has been falling in the United States for quite a while.  On the national level, violent crime dropped six percent in 2010, marking the fourth straight annual decline, despite several years of recession and steady decline of police budgets and officer ranks. In Tacoma, violent crime rates have fallen consistently since 2008. Property crimes have been declining substantially since 2006, except in 2008, when Tacoma's police force was at its apex, and property crime bumped up by 2.5 percent.

It's only fair to remind readers that the fact that property crime went up when Tacoma's police force was at optimal levels doesn't imply that more police cause property crime. In fact, that's the kind of problem that arises when trying to figure out how to combat crime, and who or what deserves the credit when crime rates fluctuate.

Crime rates are affected by all sorts of things - economic conditions, available community services, age of local populations, and, perhaps most interestingly, public perception surrounding crime in a community, according to a family of National Institute of Justice reports.

Meanwhile, in opposition to what many would call a logical assumption, criminal justice researchers have struggled to defend the notion that police staffing levels have a direct and incontrovertible impact on crime rates. A report released last year by the National Institute of Justice and Harvard's Kennedy School - The Changing Environment for Policing, 1985-2008 - summed up nearly 30 years of criminal justice research, listing study after study that concluded traditional approaches to crime reduction - including beefing up staffing levels, randomized motor patrols, foot patrols, rapid response calls and routine criminal investigation - didn't appear to significantly lower crime rates.

"One of the best kept secrets of modern life was that the police do not prevent crime. Experts know it, the police know it, and the public does not know it," says one of the study's authors, David H. Bayley, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York, Albany. 

That's not to say that police have no effect on crime, of course, or that we could just do away with police departments and be fine. What it does suggest, however, is that crime rates do not rise and fall based solely on the number of police in a community, and that losing officers, even a substantial number of them, won't necessarily turn Tacoma into an apocalyptic wasteland.

Bayley and his co-author Christine Nixongo go on to say that other studies suggest that the number of officers, combined with other factors - such as officer visibility, cooperation with local citizens, department reputation in the community, targeted enforcement in high crime areas and effective prosecution combine to have a very real deterrent effect on crime.

This rationale has manifested in so-called Zero Tolerance policies, which send a strong message to criminals and - in theory - make them think twice about committing crimes. These policies don't necessarily require large numbers of officers in order to be effective.

The same rationale has encouraged communities like Tacoma to develop proactive strategies and connect with citizens and community organizations to fight crime. By cooperating with citizens and dedicating officers to act as liaisons to Tacoma's neighborhoods, police tap everyday citizens to provide additional eyes on the streets and provide better access to police assistance, while centralizing and showing strong police presence without adding additional officers.

Those programs, unfortunately, are the ones on the chopping block.

But even that unfortunate fact doesn't necessarily add up to an impending crime wave, says University of Puget Sound (UPS) professor Bruce Mann, probably best known as the yearly co-author of the Pierce County Economic Index. Mann, along with fellow UPS professor Douglas Goodman, published a study in 2005 that reviewed available research and focused on the impact of so-called Personally Assigned Vehicles on crime in mid-sized cities, including Tacoma.

When asked whether the loss of officers is likely to generate a crime wave, Mann speaks with all the frustrating honesty of a researcher, saying that it certainly won't help, but it probably won't lead to the crime wave many predict.

"Anybody who tells you what will happen to the crime rate is working from pure speculation. We're not looking at a crime wave," says Mann. "But this will have long term impacts."

Mann notes that all of this is occurring within the context of severe economic recession, which has a fairly inarguable impact on crimes such as theft. Hard economic times have been shown time and time again to affect crime rates, according to research from all corners of the law enforcement world.

It's the kind of situation where increased crime deterrents would be most useful, Mann says, adding that law enforcement and other city officials can provide deterrents that don't require more officers. 

Perception is everything

Also of concern, especially to an economist, is the impact of the negative public perception likely to follow in the wake of police and fire department layoffs. Local leaders, including police and fire officials, have worked hard for decades to counter popular perception that Tacoma isn't a safe place to live, work and play. It raises the very real question of whether the volumes of alarmist agitprop being circulated in support of public safety officers could, ironically, do more harm than good.

"At the city level, there is a perceptional issue about quality of life," Mann says. "If the stories that go out are that Tacoma can't afford community policing, and that life threatening situations won't get attended to, I worry about the long term impacts of the signal sent to the rest of the world. Perceptions like this can take decades to overcome."

In other words: Whether real or imagined, the flood of frightening commentary emerging in opposition to proposed police and fire department layoffs are likely to have an impact on the local economy, as people shy away from the city for fear of being mugged, and avoid living here for fear that public safety has been compromised by layoffs. This, in turn, will likely have its own impact on crime rates, while eroding the tax base that would allow local officials to hire more police and firefighters. Mann suggests that false assumptions about crime waves also threaten to erode morale of the officers left to deal with whatever crime does ensue.

"If the law officers or firefighters feel like they have to do more, have less backup, and so on, there are more long term impacts," says Mann. "Those are the bigger issues than the few more crimes that might be committed."

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