Over at Less than the Least, Bill Stuntz has a link to his latest article in the Weekly Standard advocating for an increase in police funding. Stuntz argues that more police usually translates into less crime and less incarceration over time. That argument makes a lot of sense: more boots on the ground means more enforcement which should translate into less crime.
Yet there might be more to the story. In New York State, for instance, crime fell precipitously from the late 1990s until 2007 while the number of police personnel also decreased. Take New York City. In 1998, the city employed slightly over 40,000 police personnel (making it the world's largest police force). That same year, the city registered 85,915 incidents of violent crime. By 2007, the police force had shrunk to slightly over 36,000. Violent crime also had declined - quite dramatically - t0 just above 50,000 cases. Outside of New York City, the trend was somewhat different. In 1998, there were about 24,000 police personnel (excluding state police, which accounted for roughly an additional 4,000). Violent crime stood then at about 30,000 incidents. By 2007, the police forces outside of NYC were about the same in number (as well as the state police), but violent crime had declined a modest 7.5%.What is striking about the data during this period is that while New York State saw slight decreases in police personnel it also witnessed slight to substantial decrements in all categories of crime statewide. Moreover, this also occurred during a period of decreased incarceration. In 1998, the state prison population totaled around 71,000. By 2007, it was about 62,000. Likewise, there were reductions in the number of A1 drug offenders in state prison (sentences of 15 or more years) and drug offenders generally. In most ways all parts of the state witnessed these trends. But an interesting phenomena also took place. During this time period, upstate NY overtook NYC as the leader of regional percent of all crimes committed. This occurred during a continued and prolonged reduction in overall population in most cities located in upstate New York. What accounts for these counter-intuitive findings?
One answer may lie in who was being incarcerated during this period. During the late 1990s and early 2000's, New York, like many jurisdictions, saw substantial federal assistance in enforcement and prosecution of repeat violent offenders. From the "weed and seed" program to various illegal firearms programs, New York was aided by federal money and federal prosecutions of targeted violent offenders -and many of those offenders landed in the federal penitentiary (whose numbers have grown significantly during the last 20 years). It's an old truism in criminological literature that the few bad apples cause most of the problems. Recidivism rates attest to that fact.
Another explanation suggests the old notion of socio-economic factors. During the period in question, most upstate NY communities continued to suffer from prolonged economic downturns and decreased populations. It is well known that poverty is linked to crime. As such, what happens with the current state of the economy matters not just in terms of traditional fiscal contingencies - it matters in terms of crime prevention. And money has a lot to do with police hiring practices. But the allocation of law enforcement monies should be done wisely with an emphasis on targeting the offenders who do the most damage to communities. And if crime reduction is the goal, judicious use of federal law enforcement might provide the needed bite. But ultimately, the question with police stimulus may not just lie with boots on the ground but whether the overall stimulus plan really stimulates the economy. And that is an open question indeed.