Arguing for yet another Clark County sales-tax increase ostensibly dedicated to hiring more police officers, Las Vegas Metro Sheriff Joseph Lombardo told state lawmakers Monday that two officers per 1,000 residents is a “magical number” for police staffing.
While national authorities on appropriate police staffing levels almost universally criticize use of such ratios, Lombardo never acknowledged that consensus.
Instead, he pointed to the years immediately after the enactment of the “More Cops” Sales Tax Initiative and argued that the increased hires it permitted had forced crime downward.
“Specifically, the years 2007 through 2011, that’s where we crested that two officers per thousand, and if you look at the crime numbers in Clark County, directly associated to that crest of two officers per thousand, you can see that [crime] is decreasing.
“And then after 2011, with the population increase and the downfall of the economy, and the inability to hire folks, [crime] started to increase. So I’m a firm believer that cops make a difference.”
Shortly thereafter, Bill McBeath — Cosmopolitan CEO and Chairman of Metro’s Committee on Fiscal Affairs —testified remotely from Las Vegas, echoing Lombardo:
“When you see the delta between when we did hit the two per thousand and the reduction in crime rates, and you see the increase in crime rates as we went away from it, there’s a linear relationship. This is not subjective.”
However, actual violent crime numbers reported by Metro do not support what Lombardo and McBeath told lawmakers.
Both argued that, as staffing levels hit the “magical” two-per-1,000 level, a reduction in crime soon followed.
From October 2005, when Metro began receiving tax revenues earmarked for hiring more officers, Metro’s staffing levels started to increase.
At that point, Metro’s per-capita officer ratio was approximately 1.74 (per 1,000).
By the end of 2010, that staffing ratio had increased to 2.06.
According to the assertions of the Sheriff and the FAC chairman, violent crime should have decreased over these five years.
Furthermore, as staffing levels decreased in 2011 and beyond, violent crime has also decreased.
Thus, contrary to the Sheriff’s claim that violent crime decreases as staffing levels increase, violent crime — as reported by Metro itself — went up when staffing levels were increased, after 2005.
In the above chart, each point represents a particular year between 2000 and 2014. Note that lower staffing levels, as numbered on the left axis, are generally correlated with lower violent-crime rates in any given year. (The upward-sloping trend signals a direct — not inverse — relationship, meaning that increases to violent crime are associated with increases to staffing levels.)
This chart is not included to prove an affirmative relationship between staffing and crime, but rather to disprove any expectation that increases to police staffing will inevitably result in crime reduction. The past 15 years of data available indicate strongly that such is not the case.
Nevertheless, Metro’s own data contradicts the assertion that, as Clark County employs more police officers, crime will decrease.
This raises some obvious questions: What numbers, exactly, was the Sheriff referencing? Does the department have other data that it is not reporting to the public?
As mentioned earlier, the ratio-to-population method for determining staffing is actually discouraged by police professionals — such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
One analysis — done for city and county managers by the International County/City Management Association — noted that many communities rely on simple ratios to make staffing decisions, because the approach is “easy … to comprehend and apply.” Nevertheless, it concludes, “this model is equally inefficient and unreliable.”
A 2012 assessment of staffing methodologies published by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services cited 10 different independent studies to back up its assertion that “Agencies using the per capita method may risk a biased determination of their policing needs.” (Emphasis added.)
Said the COPS paper:
The disadvantage of this method is that it only addresses the quantity of police officers needed per population and not how officers spend their time, the quality of their efforts, or community conditions, needs, and expectations. Similarly, the per capita approach cannot guide agencies on how to deploy their officers. Agencies using the per capita method may risk a biased determination of their policing needs …. There are several reasons for this. First, there is no generally accepted benchmark for the optimum staffing rate. Rather, there is considerable variation in the police rate depending on community size, region, agency structure and type….
Per capita ratios do not account for the intensity of workload by jurisdiction. Crime levels and types can vary substantially among communities of similar population sizes. Per capita ratios also do not account for changes in population characteristics (such as seasonal fluctuations in tourist communities), or long-term trajectories of population growth and shrinkage.
The per capita method does not account for variations in policing style, service delivery, or response to crime (i.e., how police officers spend their time). Some police departments may choose to use non-sworn staff to perform some service functions. Others may choose a more community-oriented (with various forms of implementation) or traditional style of service delivery. Variations in how agencies choose to patrol their jurisdictions also have implications for staffing needs that are not reflected in per capita ratios….
The per capita approach fails to account for environmental differences among jurisdictions. It does not incorporate service-area size, weather patterns, or physical barriers and obstacles (such as rivers, mountains, bridges, and tunnels) in determining optimum staffing levels. Furthermore, it does not account for non-crime related functions and activities, traditionally performed by police as community demographic and economic characteristics dictate. In sum, the per capita method does not consider community context for determining staffing levels….
Given the disadvantages noted above as well as others, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has strongly advised against using population rates for police staffing. The IACP (2004, 2) notes, “Ratios, such as officers-per-thousand population, are totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions…. Defining patrol staffing allocation and deployment requirements is a complex endeavor which requires consideration of an extensive series of factors and a sizable body of reliable, current data.”
The study, done for the U.S. Dept. of Justice by Michigan State University, is titled “A Performance-Based Approach to Police Staffing and Allocation.”
It can be downloaded here.
Daniel Honchariw, MPA is a public policy analyst with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.