Amidst a surge in crime over the last two years, including homicide spikes in both 2020 and 2021, the national conversation is finally moving back toward re-funding the police. On May 8, 2021, President Biden submitted his FY22 budget proposal, which allocated $1.3 billion to law enforcement agencies. According to the budget request, the money would support community policing programs, specialized training and resources, and the hiring of new officers. In a statement made on February 3rd, 2022, the White House re-iterated this point and further urged Congress to direct more funds toward community policing efforts and to provide local departments with federal tools and resources to help them address violent crime. This is a step in the right direction, but given how vague the language is, it is hard to predict how effective his plan will be.
Of course, it is refreshing to see people changing their opinions on the “de-fund the police” movement. Unfortunately though, this comes after more than $840 million was cut from police budgets in cities across the country throughout 2020. Shrinking budgets mean that the departments cannot hire as many officers, cannot afford the latest technology, and cannot afford to provide all officers with specialized training. This inhibits the ability of police to be effective on several fronts, so it is not surprising that we saw a rise in crime during this same period.
Some cities took even more extreme actions, such as Seattle, where the city briefly abolished police presence from a segment of the city. After about a month, crime had increased significantly, and police were asked to patrol the area again. While the situation in Seattle was an anomaly, it does show the potential ramifications from de-funding the police.
Law enforcement has been in a hiring crisis for the last several years, and the “de-fund” movement likely contributed to this problem via increasing retirements/resignations and decreasing new hires. A June 2021 survey of 194 police agencies provided some insight into this situation: survey results showed a small decrease in new hires (-5%, dropping from 8.67 to 8.21 per 100 officers), a moderate increase in resignations (+18%, from 4.15 to 4.91 per 100 officers), and a large increase in retirements (+45%, from 2.85 to 4.14 per 100 officers). When considering the largest agencies (those with 500+ officers), the authors saw a much larger decrease in new hires (-36%), but a smaller increase in terms of retirements (+27%).
At the same time budgets are dwindling, departments have also been met with public outcry and demands for more training. While better police training is essential, many advocates for police reform fail realize the time, staff, and money that is required to keep officers adequately trained. To do the job that the public expects, cops would need many more hours of in-service training. Every officer receives training in various tactical skills during the police academy, but training needs to be done routinely for officers to accurately, confidently, and consistently apply the tactics. This is especially true for high-stress incidents, as biological stress responses can decrease police performance and motor skills. Research shows that training can override this effect, but only when done consistently.
It is incredibly difficult to uphold high standards of training when departments are facing a staffing shortage. Any time an officer receives training, they are pulled away from their duties. Thus, when staff are limited, removing officers from the street for training purposes can be a tough decision to justify.
Further, when there are too many priorities and not enough officers, mandatory overtime becomes inevitable. Then, officers end up sleep deprived, stressed, and under-trained, which impacts their effectiveness, temperament, and ability to handle situations effectively. For example, it is well known that sleep deprivation impairs critical skills performance in a manner comparable with alcohol intoxication. For this reason, other occupations (e.g., truck driving, rideshares) regulate how long employees can work without taking a break to sleep. Unfortunately though, police officers are not subject to requirements like these — and due to staffing shortages, it is unlikely that this will change any time soon.
Biden’s proposal would help hire more officers and would allow agencies to bolster their community policing efforts, which are both good things. However, this may not be enough to remedy the rise in violent crime. In addition to community policing, there are other strategies that police departments can implement in lieu of or alongside of community policing efforts that may bolster their effectiveness. Some strategies that have achieved scientific consensus in terms of their efficacy in reducing crime and improving police-citizen relationships are discussed below.
Research on Police Strategies
First, we know that crime concentrates at specific places and at specific times. This means that police can conserve resources by targeting specific micro locations, or “hot spots,” that account for the most crimes. Hot spots policing is a type of data-driven policing, and involves analysis of crime data to inform where resources should be targeted. The allocation of police to hot spots at the right times has been found to effectively prevent crime without simply displacing it to another area. In addition, research suggests there might be a “diffusion of benefits” where crime also decreases in areas surrounding hot spots.
Hot spots policing can also include targeted foot patrols, which increase officer presence in busy or crime-prone areas. Foot patrols can often double as a community policing intervention, too: not only do officers respond to calls, but they also visit businesses along their beat, interact with citizens, and get to know their community. Research suggests that community policing on its own is effective in improving law enforcement-citizen relationships. When coupled with data-driven strategies (such as targeted patrols), these interventions also can reduce crime. For example, directed foot patrols effectively reduced crime in Philadelphia and New Jersey, per studies from 2011 and 2018 (respectively). Contention remains though as to whether foot patrol reduces just property crime or if it reduces both violent and property crime. This is evidenced in a 2020 study in New York City and a 2018 study in Dayton, OH, which both showed reductions in property crime but not violent crime.
Second, we know that a large proportion of crime is committed by chronic offenders. To prevent these types of crimes, intelligence-led policing strategies can be used to understand more about who prolific offenders are, their social networks and everyday routines, as well as the interaction between these routines and specific places.
Third-party policing is a type of intelligence-led policing that uses intel to identify prolific offenders, their social networks, and their preferred locations for committing crime. After identifying at-risk places (for example, hotels are commonly associated with drug trafficking), community members in these places are asked to act as “eyes and ears” for the police and are encouraged to impose their own legal levers to control crime. Third-party policing seems particularly effective in reducing drug trafficking and production, per studies from 2016 and 2018. The research on third-party policing’s impact on violent crime is still emerging.
Focused deterrence strategies attempt to deter criminal behavior through fear of specific sanctions, and they have been found to reduce crime among high-risk repeat offenders. There are several variations of focused deterrence depending on what problem is being targeted (e.g. violent gangs, drug gangs, guns). Regardless, this approach typically involves police and community representatives who engage with high risk individuals and encourage them to abstain from crime by emphasizing a risk-reward system (i.e., communicating incentives for avoiding violence and deterrents for engaging in violence). For example, targeted offenders receive information about various services, such as job training and drug treatment, but they also are threatened with enhanced penalties for subsequent arrests. Recent evidence suggests that variations that target criminal groups (e.g., gangs) from engaging in violence are most effective, while those that seek to deter individuals are less effective.
On its face, Biden’s proposal to increase funding for law enforcement makes sense. The Administration is clearly advocating for the hiring of more officers and for the advancement of community policing efforts, which are both key pillars to reducing and preventing violence. However, Biden’s plan only mentions one specific strategy that law enforcement should invest in: community policing. Unfortunately, there is no detail about other potential strategies that law enforcement should invest in, other than “evidence-based strategies.” While the language does sound promising, it is probably too broad. Laypersons are generally not the most informed on what programs are actually evidence-based, and they likely need more guidance regarding what types of police strategies they should be focusing on. A lot of people argue about what “evidence-based” actually means, so it would be better if the proposal elaborated more on specific law enforcement strategies, tactics, and training that have a known foundation of empirical evidence.