Fighting Crime, on a Budget

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 part one of a three part series exclusive to by Beige Luciano-Adams.

Neither the resolution of the state budget nor the passage of a federal stimulus package has done much to halt bleeding city budgets across California. And as local governments continue to grapple with how to balance their books and avoid unpopular layoffs, the economic downturn raises familiar predictions about rising crime rates – putting public safety at the forefront of budget negotiations.

Most communities have been able to prevent police layoffs by negotiating salary freezes or finding additional tax revenue, but funding for public safety and crime prevention is a common casualty of the downsizing.

Meanwhile, some smaller communities across the state are seeing a rise in property crimes – a condition some analysts expect to intensify as the economy continues its downward spiral. Still, others are experiencing lower crime rates, despite daily layoffs and a bleak outlook.

The only certainty, it seems, is that there is no reliable way to predict how things will shape up as the recession runs its course.

Budget Battles

Typically commanding a large portion of overall spending, public safety budgets across the state are vulnerable – except maybe in Los Angeles, where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sailed into his reelection on historically low crime levels. Faced with the city’s looming $427-million budget deficit – which might hit nearly a billion in 2010-11 – Villaraigosa now plans to cut every service sector except public safety, holding fast to his pledge to raise the number of sworn officers on the streets to 10,000.

In Los Angeles, says Robert Stern, Executive Director of the Center for Government Studies, the protection of public safety funding is “pretty much a reflection of what people in the city want – they think there’s a lot of waste in other departments and that LAPD and LAFD are necessary.”

If the economy gets any worse, says Stern, the LAPD and LAFD might be cut – but they’ll be the last things to go.

Meanwhile, many other cities across the state find themselves unable to avoid police and fire department cuts.

“Some cities are looking at laying off police officers,” says Jack Kaiser, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Economic Development Center. “Smaller cities that don’t have as large an economic base [as Los Angeles does] are struggling for both police and fire funding.”

Actually, most cities whose police departments are on the chopping block in 2009 – including Stockton, Santa Rosa, Modesto, Sacramento and San Bernardino – are currently negotiating compromises with police unions or finding additional tax revenue to avoid layoffs.

Firing police officers is more difficult than you might expect, says Christine Gardner, associate professor of criminology at Cal State Long Beach University. She points out, “you can’t just fire one officer – in order to take one off the street, you need to layoff 10.” This has to do with the hierarchy and patrol schedule structure, which officers staff in shifts. And unlike other sectors, “85 to 90 percent of policing is personnel costs.”

Add that to the challenges strong police unions pose to layoff schemes, and most departments are safe from pink slips, for the moment.

“We haven’t heard anything about layoffs here,” says Lyn Tomioka, public information officer for the San Francisco Police Department, “but we are expecting budget cuts” – which Mayor Gavin Newsom has set at 25 percent for all departments.  

In Sacramento, where the police union and city officials have been locked into discussions to avoid the layoff of 67 officers, the department won’t likely lose any personnel in exchange for a few concessions, but won’t gain any, either.

“We’re in a hiring freeze, not hiring any additional staff, sworn or otherwise,” says Laura Peck, public information officer with the Sacramento Police Department.

As in other parts of the state, Sacramento will have to “get creative” with the resources it has.

“We’ve been experiencing budget cuts, but doing more with less – that’s going to be the trend. Most police departments are experiencing the same thing,” Peck says.

Part two of the three-part series will appear exclusively on on Thursday, covering the effects of the bad economy on an increase in crime rates.