Just imagine walking through your front door after a long day’s work and your house has been ransacked and your valuables gone. You call the police to report the crime but no one shows up. You call again hours later and they tell you that your call has been logged and that a police officer will be with you shortly. Then, after hours of waiting, you get a call back from the police department and an officer says that your intruder would likely not come back to your home and the report you supplied over the phone is sufficient. He ends the call by saying not to expect a police officer to come to your house because he does not have enough police officers to attend to every situation, especially after a crime has already been committed.
Next week, Oakland, CA is going to face a 10 percent cut to its police force in order to balance its budget. This week, 80 police officers were laid off, bringing the force down to 696 officers. This comes after Oakland has decreased violent crime by 14.1 percent from 2008 to 2009 but also in the wake of the worse series of civil unrest in decades. The verdict of involuntary manslaughter for Johannes Mehserle, the former BART transit officer that shot and killed Oscar Grant, triggered protest throughout Oakland as young men and women were taken into custody for vandalism and expressing their discontent with the verdict.
Before these latest set of events, all signs pointed to resurgence in Oakland as people were populating the streets, moving back to downtown to live and taking long jogs around the beautiful Lake Merritt. Now, Oakland faces uncertainty, despair and confusion as residents are unclear on whether or not they can report certain crimes to the police department or if a police officer will be sent to take a report.
A local television station announced that all low-level crimes should be reported online and to not expect a police officer to arrive to take the report. The most unfortunate consequence of the Oakland layoffs is that community policing, the key instrument for its decrease in violent crime will be cut and eliminated as a police program. In a time where the people of Oakland need law enforcement the most, police departments are being down-scaled and public safety is in jeopardy.
The untold story is that what is going on in Oakland has been happening to America’s police departments all over the country. Tulsa, Oklahoma, Minneapolis, MN and Grand Rapids, MI have all seen dramatic decreases to their police departments and like Oakland, face uncertainty on how to render justice and public safety to its citizens. Although this rash of police downsizing will come with a hefty price, placing the blame on the current recession is all too easy of a target.
Sure, “the Great Recession” has a lot to do with the drastic cuts we have seen over the last year, but just saying that police layoffs are due to municipality’s inability to meet the budgetary needs of their cities misses the point. Many police departments face uncertainty over the size and future of its police departments because their approaches to policing over the last 25 years were misguided.
For far too long, police departments have been focused on non violent offenses and not enough on violent offenses. For example in LA, where over 50 percent of arrests are as a result of non violent offenses, 12,000 rape kits go uninvestigated and untested. In New York, police spend majority of time stopping young black men on the streets for hanging out on the corner as limited resources go to addressing more serious crimes.
In Alabama, law enforcement is often found excessively writing disorderly conduct tickets to black youth, as opposed to spending majority of its resources investigating murderers and rapist. Police throughout the country have focused far too much attention on low level offenses, not enough on violent crimes and now they must choose.
As police departments downsize in order to meet budgetary needs, perhaps it’s time for police departments to reconsider how they do business and focus their efforts on violent crimes and developing partnerships with community organizations to help address low level offenses. In these tight budget times, police departments should look to community organizations to address low level offenses before they result in incarceration. Community groups, churches, mental health facilities and other service organizations can step in the gap to help police address low level offenses such as squatting, drug addiction and disorderly conduct, as police use their resources to address more serious crimes.
Police should look to model policing programs like LEAD in Seattle which seeks to send non violent offenders to treatment and mental health facilities as opposed to incarcerating them. It’s unfortunate that we had to wait for a recession before having a serious discussion about how police resources are spent, but now is better than never.