Why There Is No Time to Waste In Putting Cops Back On The Beat

On Thursday night, Senate Republicans once again blocked a plan to put laid off cops and firefighters back to work protecting communities across the country. This partisan obstruction carries serious consequences – for the economy, and for the safety and wellbeing of all Americans.

State and local budget cuts have proven devastating to cities like Flint, Michigan, where Vice President Biden visited last week. More than half of the police force has been laid off in the past three years. In 2008, Flint employed 259 police officers. Now they have just 125.  At the same time, violent crime increased.  

Citing statistics from the City of Flint Police Department, Vice President Biden pointed to spikes in murder and rape to describe the heavy toll crime is taking in Flint.    

Some have questioned the validity of the Flint statistics, because they differ from FBI figures, but city crime data can vary from FBI crime data due to different definitions of crime. This is particularly true when it comes to rape. Just this week the FBI took steps to begin to update the definition it uses – a definition that hasn’t been updated since 1927. The City of Flint defines rape differently and, therefore, collects that information differently.

City of Flint Public Safety Director Chief Alvern Lock said of the information provided to the Vice President, “This information is the most accurate data and demonstrates the rise in crime associated with the economic crisis and the reduced staffing levels.”

According to Chief Lock,"The discrepancies with the FBI and other sources reveal the differences in how crimes can be counted and categorized, based on different criteria." Experts agree that a police department’s statistics about local crime can be more up to date than the FBI’s.

But make no mistake, the debate over crime statistics distracts from the real issue. What’s happening in Flint is troubling. And communities across the country are facing similar tough situations. 

The American Jobs Act contains $5 billion to help communities such as Flint rehire laid off cops and firefighters. It’s a shame that every single Republican in the Senate voted Thursday night to block putting those first responders back to work.

Let’s not lose sight of the real issue here. The fewer police officers on the street, the harder it is to fight crime, whether stolen cars or assaults.  

“Anyone who would question the value or impact of having a marked police unit actively patrolling an urban neighborhood with high crime rates, has obviously never lived or tried to raise a family in such an environment,” said Camden, New Jersey Chief of Police J. Scott Thomson. “Often the presence of a uniformed officer is the determining factor of whether or not a disturbance escalates into an act of violence or order is maintained.”

Thomson continued, “Police leaders do need to have the capacity which also affords the flexibility to effectively deploy officers to combat the thugs and criminals that are negatively defining the lives of the residents in a community.  This is why Camden (post layoff) has forsaken other functions and restructured its organization to have 92% of all available sworn personnel in a forward leaning position to address street crime and shape outcomes. “

As the Vice President said in Flint, “There are a few things everybody knows for a fact -- we can argue a lot about law enforcement.  But we know one thing:  The more law enforcement officers we have, the better opportunity to make our streets safe, our neighborhoods safe and our businesses and places of worship safe.”

Having enough officers means a department can deploy innovative strategies like community policing in high crime neighborhoods.  These tactics reduce crime. So when a city like Flint has to cut community policing and can’t send patrol cars to park on the corner in a crime hot spot, they lose an important crime fighting tool.   

“There is no question that the number of cops makes a difference when it comes to controlling crime rates,” says Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.  “Whether it is a large department, midsize or small there is a staffing level that if you fall below, your ability to be effective on the street is impacted and as a result, crimes rates will rise.”

The American Jobs Act will provide help desperately needed by communities across the country, putting fire fighters and police officers back to work to keep neighborhoods safe.

Terrell McSweeny is the domestic policy advisor to the Vice President and a deputy assistant to the President
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