Resources, Selection and Training 2010

Posted 10/3/10

IS THE SKY ABOUT TO FALL?

Chiefs warn that police cutbacks will lead to a resurgence of crime. Are they right?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Police layoffs were once unheard of.  So when communities as hard-hit by crime as Oakland trim their sworn ranks – eighty cops, about ten percent of the force, were let go in July – everyone takes notice.  At a recent Washington meeting worried police executives from across the U.S. discussed the impact of public safety cuts and exchanged information on how best to proceed.  Chiefs from Sacramento to Massachusetts complained that plunging tax revenues were threatening to reverse hard-fought gains against crime by forcing them to freeze hiring, disband specialized units and return detectives to patrol.

     Dealing with cutbacks has certainly led to some interesting solutions.  Desperately looking for ways to close a $128 million gap the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department is having detectives don uniforms one day a week, saving on patrol salaries and overtime but making already substantial investigative backlogs even worse. And in a move revealed only recently, in July the FBI assigned six agents to LAPD homicide and funded an undisclosed amount of detective overtime, enabling the beleaguered department to clear an “unheard of” twenty-seven murders in three months.

     During the past two years Congress has set aside a portion of recovery act funds to help police departments pay for more cops. Administered by DOJ’s community policing office, the program just disbursed its second set of grants, amounting to $300 million. Sacramento County, which laid off more than one-hundred deputies in 2009, got $21 million, which it will use to bring back fifty.

     With only so much money to go around applicant agencies must prove that their financial circumstances and crime problems are unusually grim. Unable to meet that requirement, NYPD and LAPD have been repeatedly turned away. That’s ruffled feathers. “This formula makes absolutely no sense,” complained Sen. Charles Schumer (D – NY).  “Punishing New York City and other municipalities for their success in keeping crime down and people safe sends the wrong message to law enforcement agencies.”

     Senator Schumer’s anger is understandable.  Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, the organization that hosted the Washington conference, pointed out that New York City had 2,200 murders in 1990 but only 466 in 2009.  “For the longest time, people thought that the police didn’t matter, didn’t affect the crime rate. Now we’ve seen that's not true.”   What happens, he asked, when proactive strategies are out of reach?

     Violent and property crime are now about 40 percent lower than in 1990-1992, when the so-called “Great Crime Drop” began.  Except for slight upticks in violence in 2005 and 2006, the offense count (actual numbers, not just per capita) has fallen each year.  Just-released figures indicate that this trend has continued through the present, with violent crime down 5.3 percent and property crime down 4.6 percent in 2009.

     Why the drop? As we’ve previously posted, academic assessments have given credit to a variety of factors, including improvements in the economy, the graying of the population, increased incarceration and vigorous policing (see Blumstein and Wallman, “The Crime Drop in America”, Cambridge, 2000).

     Economic arguments don’t seem all that compelling.  To be sure, with recessions in 1960-61, 1969-70, 1973-75, 1980, 1981-82, 1990-91, 2000-2001 and 2007-2009 there is lots of room for speculation.  One could surmise, for example, that the relative prosperity of the mid-1980’s set the stage for the crime drop, and that the economic expansion of the mid-1990’s kept it going. Yet we also know that crime increased during prior periods of growth, such as in the 1960’s.

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     A better answer, many say, is that the American population has been aging out of the crime-prone years. It’s true that the median age has increased – for males, it climbed from 28.9 to an estimated 35.3 between 1980 and 2010. But it’s also true that between 1990-1999, a time when violent crime plunged 28 percent and property crime decreased 26 percent, the size of the most criminogenic male age group, 15-29, increased by 12 percent.

     On the other hand there’s no question but that imprisonment prevents crime. One can’t commit burglaries while locked up. In his widely quoted (and often reviled) 2003 book about the great crime drop, “Why Crime Rates Fell,” Tufts sociologist John E. Conklin credited up to half the improvement to increased incarceration.  Naturally, it’s up to police to serve up worthy targets. So to the extent that proactive strategies contribute to the incapacitation of dangerous offenders, slashing police budgets does give reason for concern.

     Budgetary constraints also affect the form that punishment can take.  The crack-fueled crime spike of the 1980’s generated a severely punitive response, which persisted in somewhat diminished form to the present.  But with corrections budgets under the gun, states have started experimenting with liberalized release policies. Naturally, should recidivists get out early, there are consequences.

     Incidentally, a seldom-mentioned factor that likely contributed to the crime drop is the stabilization of the crack marketplace, which brought the bloody battles between competing gangs to an end.  Peace in the ‘hood (we know, a relative term) may be one reason why the murder count has plunged.

     Doubts have also arisen about the true magnitude of the crime drop. A criminologist recently recounted an episode when, as a cop, he was asked to help document the city’s need for new streetlights. “We wanted a grant to do that, and we were told to go out and find every broken window we could. You know how many broken windows there are...? We led the nation that year in vandalism.  And guess who got the grant?”

     In the bad old days, when it seemed that crime could only go up, your blogger recalls that departments were often anxious to remind everyone that crime was getting worse so funding would increase.  But once things turned the corner it ceased being in a chief’s best interests to point out that crime in their city was up.  As we mentioned in Liars Figure, the need to demonstrate continual improvement, generated in part by Compstat, has led to widespread cheating.  Under pressure from superiors, officers have discouraged citizens from reporting crimes, ignored and undercounted what was reported, and downgraded offenses (e.g., from aggravated to simple assault) to keep them from appearing in the FBI’s yearly crime counts.  It’s impossible to estimate the effect of such shenanigans, but it’s likely significant. Bottom line: the “great crime drop” may not be so “great” after all.

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Posted 3/22/10

NOT ALL COPS ARE BLUE

Internal strife besets two well-regarded police departments

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Nestled against foothills northeast of Los Angeles lie the twin cities of Burbank and Glendale.  Home to cadres of upwardly-mobile young professionals, the communities – Burbank hovers at slightly over 100,000 population; Glendale is nearly twice the size – are in most respects similar.  Bordering Southern California’s largest urban park, sporting ultramodern shopping complexes and miles of shady, tree-lined streets, both are desirable places to live, enjoying good school systems and crime rates well below the national average.

     Alas, both also have police departments that are verging on meltdown.


     On October 29, 2009 Burbank Police Sergeant Neil Gunn, Sr. called his superior. Assigned to work from his residence while the department’s internal affairs unit investigated reports that he and other officers had abused suspects, the 22-year veteran and former SWAT commander got permission to leave. He then drove his truck to a quiet place, grabbed his shotgun and blew himself apart.

     According to department sources the use of force became a problem after a rookie’s killing in 2003. Currently as many as a dozen officers are targets of an FBI civil rights investigation. One of the allegations, a 2007 incident in which an officer supposedly jammed a gun barrel against a robbery suspect’s head, came to light when a detective who said he witnessed this and other instances of abuse belatedly came forward.  Suspended for originally lying to investigators, Detective Angelo Dahlia wound up suing the department, complaining that officers had intimidated him into keeping quiet and that then-chief Tim Stehr (he resigned after Gunn’s suicide) had “encouraged the beatings.”

     Dahlia isn’t the only cop with a gripe. In another lawsuit, Burbank Police Captain Bill Taylor alleges that he was demoted from deputy chief after complaining to the former chief about police misconduct, including instances of discrimination against recently-hired minority officers.

     Racial and ethnic tensions within the ranks have propelled even more litigation.  The original suit, filed in May 2009 by a Hispanic lieutenant and four officers – a female Hispanic, a male Hispanic, an Armenian and a Black – characterized the department as “an insider’s club where if you aren’t white, male and heterosexual you had better keep your mouth shut and play along with the bigots or suffer the consequences.” White cops and the former chief were accused of subjecting minority officers to slurs and slights, passing them over for desirable assignments and promotions and unfairly disciplining them.  According to the lieutenant he was harassed for hiring a qualified, openly gay female and was busted back to patrolman for reporting officer misconduct, with the chief going so far as to arrange his demotion with the police union.

     A sixth officer filed a separate but nearly identical suit four months later. Excepting one of the original plaintiffs, whose cause of action was recently dismissed on technical grounds, the cases remain on track.


     Burbank is known for its movie and television studios.  Glendale’s fame, on the other hand, comes from hosting the largest Armenian community in the U.S., comprising between a third and a half of the city’s population. At last count, though, its police force of 257 officers has only nineteen of Armenian descent, with none holding ranks higher than sergeant. According to lawyer Carney Shegerian that’s not nearly good enough.  “How come they’re not lieutenants yet?” he demanded.  “Officers are going to explain and will testify that they should have been lieutenants by now.”

     The angry advocate was referring to a lawsuit he filed on January 20, 2010 on behalf of four current and one former Glendale police officers of Armenian ancestry, including two of the department’s four current sergeants. Like their Burbank counterparts, the Glendale litigants allege a pattern of hostile treatment and discrimination resulting in “humiliation, emotional distress, and mental and physical pain and anguish,” making their lives miserable and depriving them of the opportunity to freely exercise their profession and advance in the ranks.

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     Instances of bias include the removal of one of the plaintiffs from his position as the department’s chief spokesperson, allegedly because he testified for another of the plaintiffs, who had been fired and was suing for reinstatement. There are also examples of derogatory comments and of failed attempts to gain transfers and promotions. A lot of emphasis is placed on statistics. If Glendale really doesn’t discriminate, why do they have so few Armenian cops?

     That, argues the City, isn’t on purpose.  Relatively few Armenians apply to join the force, and with few vacancies and little turnover it’s unreasonable to expect more.  Glendale also insists it’s trying to do more.  It posted an announcement for an Armenian-fluent officer several months before the lawsuit was filed, helping earn the new chief a commendation from the local branch of a national Armenian organization.  Yet the lawsuit recently doubled in size to an astounding ninety pages, and with two out of four of the department’s highest-ranking Armenians suing their own agency one must wonder whether reconciliation is within reach.


     Policing has traditionally been a white man’s game. Your blogger recalls that when he joined ATF in 1972 the official job description specifically excluded female applicants because of the position’s physical risks. When Federal law finally forced much-needed changes much of the resistance went underground. Bias remained so evident that qualified women and minorities were discouraged from applying, inadvertently furnishing a ready excuse for their continued absence from the ranks.

     In time things did improve. Changes are most apparent in large agencies such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, whose ethnic (and to a lesser extent, gender) mix approaches that of the communities they serve.  But substantial imbalances persist elsewhere. As Glendale’s chief explained, “we do not have people retiring or leaving in hordes. It’s been very piecemeal over the years. So your opportunity for growth [more Armenians in leadership positions] is minimal.”

     In fact, in a department that’s 92.7 percent non-Armenian, promoting an Armenian is likely to raise eyebrows.  Was it done fair and square or is it an example of reverse discrimination?  That’s not an idle question.  Last year the Supreme Court ruled that discarding the results of firefighter promotional exams because results favored whites violated the Civil Rights Act.  Police officers have won reverse discrimination cases around the U.S., often gaining substantial settlements. In February 2008 San Francisco agreed to pay nine whites, two Hispanics and one Asian officer a total of $1.6 million because they were passed over for promotion to lieutenant in favor of lower-scoring black applicants, all of whom were promoted.

     In the end, it’s not just about the money or who gets to wear the stripes, bars or stars. To the extent that officers don’t consider all their colleagues to be equally “blue” everyone suffers. Policing is stressful enough without letting nonsensical distinctions about race, ancestry and what-have-you get in the way. It’s the same issue that’s bedeviled our land since a small contingent of religiously oppressed pilgrims made their way across the Atlantic.  Regrettably, it doesn’t seem to be going away.

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