*|MC_PREVIEW_TEXT|*Data-driven reform | Violence reduction | Tech to fight crime
February 17, 2021 | View as webpage

In many towns and cities across the country, elected officials and community stakeholders are coming together to discuss the topic of police reform. The outcomes of these conversations vary, but when conducted without soliciting the impact of law enforcement leaders, decisions can be made that do not improve the quality of life and safety for community members.

Key to informed decisions is having access to data. “Policing by the Numbers,” a recently published report from the Council on Criminal Justice, outlines several areas of statistical significance that police leaders could present to the citizens they serve to leverage improvements for their agencies. In today’s Leadership Briefing, Police1 columnist Joel Shults breaks down the findings of this new report, which looks at areas such as police spending, police contacts with the public and crime rate trends.

Current crime data does show a dramatic increase in homicides in our nation’s major cities. Also in today’s newsletter, Denise Rodriguez, who currently serves as Chief Deputy Police Monitor on the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the United States Department of Justice Consent Decree, details how community-specific policing strategies are helping cities address violent crime.

P.S. Continue the learning. Subscribing to additional Police1 specialty mailings is just a click away. Sign up for our Investigations, Careers and SWAT eNewsletters here.

Stay safe,

Nancy Perry
Editor-in-Chief, Police1 

New data gives hope for informed reform
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. 

COVID-19 and police reform are two themes continuing through the news. Numbers are a constant in the analysis of the pandemic guiding medical professionals and researchers in the response to the virus. In contrast, police reform is often being guided by speculation, assumptions and politics instead of data.

Policing by the Numbers” is a recently published report from the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) that may provide useful data for policymakers. The CCJ describes itself as “a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank created to advance understanding of the criminal justice policy challenges facing the nation and build consensus for solutions based on facts, evidence, and fundamental principles of justice.”

As part of the CCJ’s report, several areas of statistical significance are graphically represented for readers.

Police agency size and composition

The increase in the number of police officers has not kept up with population growth across the U.S. Measured from 1987 to 2016, the number of full-time, sworn police officers peaked in 2013 with 724,690 but declined by 3% by 2016. When compared to the number of serious offenses (FBI UCR Part 1 crimes), the ratio of officers to offenses showed more officers per offense over the period of the downward trend in crime in the 1990s.

The number of female police officers increased from 7.6% of the law enforcement workforce in 1987 to 12.3% in 2016, with most of the increase occurring in the 1990s and leveling off in subsequent years. By race, Black officers during the same time period increased by 60% while Hispanic representation quadrupled. The statistics are aggregate and do not reflect percentages of ethnicity relative to populations served by individual agencies.

Police spending

Spending on law enforcement as a percentage of government budgets has remained at under 4% for the last four decades even though actual dollars spent shows triple the inflation-adjusted dollars from 1977 to 2018. For the percent of expenditures to remain constant while actual expenditures increase is an indicator of the increased costs of other government services over time. The distinction between percentage of government budgets compared to actual dollars, especially given the reduction in actual numbers of sworn personnel, is an important number in the debate on defunding police.

Police contacts with the public

This category was sourced largely from a Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2015. Data differentiate, where possible, between police-initiated contacts and citizen-initiated contacts. The source is interviews of citizens rather than data provided by law enforcement. Some other estimates of police and citizen interactions count only the total interactions without regard to citizen requested contact, a practice that can leave the reader with the assumption that all contacts are assertively police generated.

Traffic stops, not counting crash investigations, and counting passenger contacts separately from driver contacts, constitute the greatest number of police-initiated interactions. In total numbers, Blacks are the subject of contacts more than whites as a total of the population although, once again, the numbers are a national aggregate and not percentages based on populations by jurisdiction.

The CCJ’s graphs represent nearly 30 million police-initiated contacts and 60 million citizen-initiated contacts, indicating that citizens seek out the police more often than the reverse. One potential indicator or cause of mistrust of police in minority communities is that Blacks are somewhat over-represented in police-initiated contacts and under-represented in citizen-initiated contacts.

The actual number of contacts fell by nearly 20% in the period from 2011 to 2015.

Crime rate trends, victimization reporting rates, and arrest and clearance rates

Crime rates, though measures are flawed in many respects, are one of the most consistently monitored statistics in the criminal justice arena. As already widely reported, both violent and property crimes dropped dramatically after a late 1980s peak, while the homicide rate has very recently spiked dramatically in certain urban areas.

The percentage of crimes unreported to the police is determined by comparing the reported crime numbers to surveys of the population asking if they have been a victim of a crime that was unreported. A decline in the percentage of crimes reported to police by victims was recorded from 2010 to 2019 after a slight rise in accurate reporting in years prior.

Clearance rates on reported crime have remained fairly steady over time with the exception of a poorer clearance rate for homicides between 1987 and 2018. Arrest rates have declined in recent years, mostly from public order offenses. Racial disparities have not disappeared but have lowered in all categories of crime in comparing arrests of blacks to whites.

Officer-involved fatalities, officers killed or assaulted

The most controversial issue in law enforcement is the number of persons killed while in contact with the police. This is also the set of data least accurately reported, as is the number of dangerous assaults and threats perpetrated against officers. This report’s aggregation of five different sources of officer-involved fatalities does show that the number of such deaths has remained steady near 1,000 annually. The report notes that “no clear aggregate trend” is evidenced over the past five years, which likely shows that deaths related to police intervention are singular anomalies in the milieu of millions of interactions with police.

An interesting trend is an increase in police-involved deaths in rural jurisdictions by 34% from 2013 to 2019, and suburbs by 8%, while urban areas experienced a 27% decrease. Deaths of whites rose 34%, marking the largest increase by race in contrast to a 24% decrease of Blacks in urban areas from police interaction. Most deaths were related to firearms and vehicles.

Deaths of officers have always fluctuated and defied conclusions about causation. Assaults on officers and officer injuries are among the least accurately reported, but a significant uptick in reported assaults began being reported in 2014.

Public opinion of police

This final category of the report reflects the public attitude as measured after the in-custody death of George Floyd.

Trust in the police had remained steady prior to Floyd’s death but dropped among Blacks by 16% compared to 1994 levels. White respondents’ opinions remained steady. Still, the majority of Black respondents reported that they would expect to be treated with respect during a police contact.

Only 14% of persons surveyed wanted less police presence in their neighborhoods and only a quarter believed that funding for police should be reduced. While indicating some weakness in public support of law enforcement, the numbers are not as dire as some would believe.

Policy implications of the data

Whether the data outlined in this report has a direct impact on policy formulation remains to be seen. As in all sociological studies, determining precise cause and effect relationships is difficult and defining problems and solutions just as challenging. 

A foundation of data is essential in conversations from the squad room to the halls of legislative bodies. There are many positives in the report that police leaders can emphasize to their public to leverage improvements for their agencies. Law enforcement staffing, budget trends and improvements in reducing racial inequities may counter some persistent negative stereotypes about law enforcement. Many agencies will be able to boast that they are ahead of national trends or, conversely, need support to reach national averages. 

NEXT: Setting up use of force training for community education

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Violence reduction: Improving police-community relations is key
By Denise Rodriguez 

The role of the community in policing is once again at the forefront of discussion among community advocates, city leaders and police executives.

Beyond the role of the community in the accountability and oversight of police, communities are also seeking greater input in how police serve, or in some cases “police,” their communities.

With rising rates of homicides in many major cities across the country, the community’s role in crime prevention and reduction is that much more important and just one of many approaches that can be implemented to address these increases.

What matters to community members

Over the last 10 years, I have interviewed hundreds of community members on issues related to community-police relationships and police reform. One such interview highlighted how an officer’s demeanor and actions when interacting with the family of a homicide victim can impact the broader community’s sense of trust and cooperation. This distraught father, whose primary concern was not related to police violence, but rather how the police treated him after his son was discovered as a victim of a homicide.

As the father described it, the apathy and lack of transparency from the officers and detectives who responded to the crime scene broke down any semblance of trust he might have had prior to that day. The actions and behavior of the officers and detectives reflected to him, a department who saw him and his family not as victims, but as the causes of the city’s crime problem. Unfortunately, as I spoke to others within this same community, the impact of this negative interaction carried on for many years and across various community members, some of which shared the same or similar stories.

The value of homicide support groups

Agencies like RichmondLouisville Metro and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police departments have sought to improve how communities are treated after violent crimes and have implemented Homicide Support Groups.

In these cities, Homicide Support Groups (HSGs) are reflective of how building greater, more substantive, relationships with the community increases trust and thus result in greater community cooperation and increased homicide clearance rates. HSGs are comprised of partners from multiple stakeholders, led by homicide detectives, who engage directly with the families and communities affected by these violent crimes, keeping them apprised of the investigation process, judicial developments, and provide resources and support.

In addition to working toward strengthening relationships with their communities, in some cases, these agencies have also experienced increases in homicide clearance rates. Although research is limited on the impact of this specific approach, it appears to be fruitful and in 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services funded additional research, as well as the development of an implementation guide for other agencies considering HSGs.

Community-specific policing strategies

Communities seeking greater input in how their neighborhoods are policed are also taking greater responsibility in developing crime prevention and reduction strategies.

Community-based groups and organizations, some of which are funded using city funds, grants, and/or donations, are stepping up to improve their neighborhoods by establishing community centers, conducting listening sessions, revitalizing their neighborhoods using crime prevention through environmental design, and directly engaging city and police leaders in developing community-specific policing strategies.

Fort Worth’s LVTRise, Albuquerque’s Community Policing Councils, and the Charleston Area Justice Ministry are just a few examples of community-based organizations that are currently working to improve their communities, increase safety, and address inequities in policing.

No one approach will be the panacea

The above examples are just two innovative approaches to addressing the rise of homicides and violent crime, which in some cases rates have not been experienced in over 20 years.

A comprehensive approach, one that involves many partners, extending beyond policing and criminal justice, such as health, social services, housing and education must also be included in these discussions. Further, no one approach, however innovative, is going to be the panacea for all communities and police agencies.

As is clear when examining the research that has been conducted on police policies, procedures, technologies and strategies, the success of these approaches varies across communities and as their needs change, so must these approaches.

NEXT: Addressing 2020's unprecedented rise in violent crime

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