As police departments across the state prepare for cutbacks, some wonder whether higher crime rates will be part of the new deficit. The following is the final piece of a three part series exclusive to by Beige Luciano-Adams. Part one and Part two found here.

Recent reports about Bakersfield’s “alarming” property crime rates would seem to confirm fears about how the recession will affect crime. The latest FBI reports, according to a Mar. 1, 2009 article by the Bakersfield Californian, show that the city has higher per-capita property crime rates than New York, Los Angeles and Fresno (177, 92 and 13 percent higher respectively).

Modesto and Stockton, according to the Californian, have even higher rates (15% and 25% higher than Bakersfield, respectively), among the highest in the state. 

Meanwhile, bigger cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, where higher crime rates are expected, have seen better numbers. Even San Bernardino, dubbed the nation’s “crime capital” in 2005, reported some of its lowest crime figures in years in 2008 – including robberies and vehicle thefts, which were at 9-year lows, according to local media.

In Sacramento, where police are narrowly avoiding layoffs, there was a decrease in all crimes from 2007-2008, except homicide, which saw a small increase. All others, including vehicle theft, robbery, rape, simple and aggravated assault decreased by anywhere from 1.5 to 19 percent, according to the Sacramento Police Department.

At the state level, according to a report from the California Attorney General’s office, property crimes were down 3.7 percent in the latter half of 2008 (Jan. – June) from the same period in 2007, with the exception of larceny-theft over $400 (which increased 2.8%). The decrease is attributable to declines in burglary and motor vehicle theft (down 2.9 and 10.7 percent, respectively), according to the report.

It is still early, and the economy can get worse. Those who predict an upswing in property theft due to the recession might point to the lag between economic change and associated criminal behavior.

“When we look at criminological theory,” says Gardner, “there are many theories about why people commit crime; for some it’s a rush, for others it’s a learned behavior, for others strain or stress are a factor.

Do some people turn to crime when the economy is bad?” asks Gardner, adding, skeptically, “Maybe. When someone is desperate, they’ll go to extraordinary measures.”

But Gardner thinks that if we see any increase in crime at all, it would likely be in something like shoplifting, which “would be easiest for people to do, because you can neutralize or justify it.”

Community Policing

In addition to sworn officers, alternative policing programs, including those that focus on prevention and work with communities to report crime, have become an increasingly important part of public safety policy.

“Most police departments have been doing community policing for about 20 years,” says Dr. Gardner, “and they’re becoming more and more prevalent in different cities, both big and small, and are changing the way police do their job.

“They’ve been found to be more effective on a number of levels. They’re more targeted, more about working with community, and having the community as partners in crime prevention, and that goes a long way.”

San Francisco’s Safety Network, which works with communities to prevent crime, is such a program – and an early casualty of budget cuts. As reported by local media, the city is slashing its entire $600,000 budget.

Advocates of similar community programs in gang-affected counties, like San Bernardino, fear they will lose the hard-won ground they’ve gained in turning around dismal crime rates over the last several years.

With community program cuts more likely than police layoffs, a decline in public safety conditions might be less dramatic or sudden.

Many departments are “doing better policing now than they were 30 years ago,” Gardner says, indicating that a tight budget might not be the end of the line.

And, with substantial support from civil society and philanthropists, communities might be able to sustain new programs while their governments weather the recession.