Ohio authorities question whether city can stay safe with fewer officers

By Elizabeth Gibson
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the city's budget crunch squeezes the police department, city officials say Columbus still is one of the safest cities in the U.S.

How safe?

It depends on whom you ask, and academics disagree about how much a decrease in the number of officers would effect crime rates.

With the city strapped for cash, Mayor Michael B. Coleman's office has proposed not replacing as many as 57 officers who might retire next year.

Such an outcome would be hard to deal with if it continued into 2010 and 2011, said George Speaks, deputy director of public safety.

"But Columbus is still one of the safest metro cities," he said. "Overall, looking at violent crime, we're doing very well."

Columbus ranked 17th in violent crime -- murder, rape, robbery and assault -- of 33 U.S. cities with populations of more than 500,000 in 2007, according to the FBI.

That's right in the middle, although the FBI warns that its statistics shouldn't be used for comparisons because crime factors vary widely from city to city.

Honolulu had the lowest rate of violent crimes while Detroit topped the list as most dangerous city.

Cleveland and Cincinnati also had higher violent-crime rates than Columbus, though they are not in the list of 33 cities because they have populations under 500,000.

But that's not the final word.

A report by CQ Press, a publisher that focuses on American government and politics, looked at a wider range of crimes and placed Columbus as the ninth most dangerous of 33 cities in 2007.

The mayor's office, meanwhile, likes to tout Columbus' appearance in Money magazine in 2006 as one of the 10 safest big cities in the U.S.

There are lots of numbers to pick and choose from when it comes to crime, but Speaks says the latest numbers are positive.

Ohio cities topped the charts for having the highest number of rapes per capita in 2007, but the number of sexual assaults in Columbus is down 5.4 percent to 628 so far this year.

Other than murder, the rate of every type of violent crime has fallen so far this year. Robbery is down 7 percent to 3,286 offenses, and aggravated assault has dropped 4.8 percent to 1,018 incidents.

Murder is up 40.3 percent to 102 from 72 at this time in 2007, but the murder rate was especially low last year.

"I don't think we're going to ruin Columbus being recognized as one of the safest big cities in America even with this horrible recession," said Councilman Andrew Ginther, chairman of the safety committee.

Columbus had a record 1,927 police keeping Columbus safe in 2007, but now the Safety Department could lose 57 police officers who are expected to retire.

Other city departments are facing severe cuts, and the safety department, which eats up 72 percent of the city's general-fund budget, has to share some of the burden even if it is a top priority, said Dan Williamson, a spokesman for the mayor.

Cutting parks and recreation money is bad, but having fewer officers is going too far, said Bob Leighty, a neighborhood activist for Merion Village.

"I don't know if I can say crime X or crime Y would get worse, but without them, more things will happen," Leighty said. "It's just a given. That's really going to impact all of our neighborhoods."

It's not a given, said Ohio State University sociology professor David Jacobs, who has researched the connection between the size of a police force and crime rates.

"I don't think police per capita matters that much," he said. "If the police suddenly go on strike, you get an uproar. If you do it at the margin, at incremental drops, it doesn't have a big impact."

Poverty, demographics and the size of a city have a much bigger impact on crime rates, Jacobs said.

Although that's true to an extent, New York University professor Dennis Smith argues, police can make a difference if they're well trained.

"How effective the cops are is more important than the number out there," the public-policy professor said. "But you still have to have officers and resources to do anything."

Copyright 2008 Columbus Dispatch

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