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 an in-depth look at crime on a budget throughout California, exclusive to

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.

Bad Economy, More Crime? Not necessarily

As the economy continues to plummet, many analysts are reminding us that recessions bring desperation – and that desperation leads people to commit crime.

Resurrecting a well-worn argument, Jack Kaiser of the LAEDC says, “When ever the economy gets tough, there will be an upsurge in crime. Over period of time, you’ll see [this] – in burglaries, car theft, things like that.”

Property crimes, which include burglary, larceny, vehicle theft, shoplifting, vandalism and arson, are typically associated with economic downturns. “There’s anecdotal evidence to this effect,” says Kaiser.

But while correlations between crime rates and economic conditions may be drawn, says Dr. Christine Gardiner, the causal relationship has not been proven – and likely can’t be.

“There are so many factors that affect both the economy and crime, that you can’t get a causal link. It’s a lot more complex than that.”

Gardiner says she doesn’t know of any studies that directly link the two factors, but cites a new study published in Scientific American (March 2009) that looks at young males with no more than a high-school education (the demographic most likely to commit property crimes) and links average wages and unemployment rates to increased rates in crime.

But this is an isolated case, she says, not a formula for forecast, adding that having more police on the streets won’t necessarily make us safer.

“Crime rate is not a function of one particular thing, and the number of police per resident or population is not really related to the incidence of crime – there are neighborhood, area factors that go into it,” she says.

No rhyme to varying crime rates through California cities

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.