Columns » Warwick Sabin

Hire ... more ... cops

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The best contribution to date in the Little Rock mayoral race is a simple two-line graph produced by Jesse Mason’s campaign.

One line charts the number of violent crimes in the city from 1993 through 2004. The other line indicates the number of police officers on duty during those years.

Sure enough, crime goes down when there are more police personnel and increases when the officer ranks are diminished.

That’s actually an understatement. The lines are almost perfectly inversely proportional, leading to an unavoidable conclusion.

It seems like a rather obvious one: more cops lead to fewer crimes. Indeed, there is no shortage of studies to support that theory, and many cities have reduced criminal activity by adding more law enforcement officers. New York City is probably the most notable recent example, with a dramatic 60 percent drop in its crime rate during the 1990s as the police corps grew by several thousand.

Of course, there is conflicting evidence. Almost 10 years ago, Washington, D.C. had the highest number of police officers per capita and still had the third-highest crime rate in the country. And some have attributed New York’s success to other factors, including an overall crime reduction nationwide.

But let’s return to the Little Rock numbers, which are available on Mason’s campaign website at masonformayor.com/issues/crime.htm. The numerical parallels are too consistent to ignore.

For instance, while the city’s falling crime rate during the 1990s occurred simultaneously with the general national improvement, the number of violent crimes in Little Rock actually ticked upward from 1999 to 2000 when the number of police officers was reduced for the first time in six years. Then, when an extra patrolman was added in 2001, crime went down again. And so it goes, in almost perfect proportion, suggesting that external influences are less significant.

Furthermore, since such statistical correlations are so rare in social science, it’s worth employing the old Occam’s Razor maxim, which stipulates that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

With that in mind, Mason uses the data to make a proposal: “In 1993, there were 5,889 violent crimes in the city and 395 sworn police officers (1 for every 465 citizens). In 1999, there were 559 police officers in the city (1 for every 328 citizens). … At current levels we have one police officer for every 366 citizens. I want to see this number get down to around 300 in the next four years. At the current levels, we would need to increase our police force to approximately 600.”

That is impeccable logic, and whoever is elected mayor should push to enact Mason’s idea for a 600-person police force.

Such a move could also signal a move toward two important principles sorely lacking in government at all levels today: Prioritizing basic functions and responsibilities, and employing fact-based analysis to formulate policy.

After all, violent crime is an existential threat, and among the city’s most fundamental purposes is providing public safety. As we get ready to vote on a sales tax increase to bail out an incompetent county government that could not prepare or execute a plan to provide adequate jail space, we should demand that our future leaders put first things first, anticipate problems and offer solutions that make sense.

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