November 20, 2004 in City

Police staffing levels similar to other cities

By The Spokesman-Review
 

When population growth is taken into account, Spokane’s police staffing next year will fall to where it was two decades ago.

And while the numbers will be low compared to national averages, they’re not far from similar-size cities in the region.

After two rounds of staff cuts, Spokane likely will have 1.35 police officers for every 1,000 residents next year. That’s down from 1.53 in 2003, but similar to 1985 numbers. And it’s similar to rates in Boise and Vancouver, Wash.

The national average of police staffing for cities the size of Spokane is 1.9 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the FBI’s 2003 crime report. But the average in Western cities is only 1.3.

Tacoma, which has had higher crime rates historically, has a larger force. Next year, the department expects to have about 1.9 officers per 1,000 residents.

Jeffrey Roth, associate director for research at The Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said 2.2 officers per 1,000 residents used to be the recommended level for city police departments. But not anymore.

“People realized that everyone was quoting that number with absolutely no idea where it came from,” Roth said.

The optimum number of officers depends on factors such as the crime rate, percentage of juveniles in the community, tradition and the public’s expectations, said Mike Erp, director of the Washington State Institute for Community Oriented Policing.

Roth said cities nationwide are experiencing tight police budgets because of increased responsibilities from homeland security issues, a significant decline in federal grant money and a reduction of municipal tax bases.

When a department has to cut officers, he agrees with Police Chief Roger Bragdon’s approach of cutting property crime detectives in favor of putting police on the street.

Having a property crime detective investigate a burglary will make the victim feel better, but doesn’t often solve a crime, Roth said. It’s more effective to have officers tracking repeat offenders and patrolling high-crime areas.

Some criminals may be more likely to strike knowing that their crime will be less likely to be investigated, Erp said. However, criminals in Spokane may not be thinking that hard. Research shows that most thefts and burglaries in Spokane are motivated by drugs.

“To the extent that they calculate, they calculate, ‘What do I do to get more money,’ ” Erp said.

While Spokane decides where to make cuts, Vancouver, Boise and Tacoma are hiring, despite budget problems of their own.

In the next year, Boise plans to add 12 officers in part through a federal grant and because it recently won the police contract for Boise State University, said Lynn Hightower, Boise Police spokeswoman.

Tacoma was budgeted for 380 officers in 2004. Even though the department could be cut to 366 in 2005, there still will be at least 12 openings because of attrition, said Mark Fulghum, Tacoma Police spokesman.

Vancouver is adding about 10 officers that will be funded partially through a federal grant, said Stan Girt, the department’s business manager.

Erp said public safety in Spokane might take a hit from more than the loss of police. Reduction in services at community centers, libraries, senior centers, child care establishments and after-school outlets for kids could have a long-term effect on crime.

“There’s good reason for the community to be alarmed about the entire budget,” Erp said. “It’s not just a matter of police staffing levels. It’s a matter of what else exists in the community to address that crime problem.”


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