As part of my daily routine I sit at my desk first thing in the morning with my coffee and open the Denver Gazette to catch up on news. One day I read about a shooting in LoDo, another about a shooting on the 16th Street Mall, and on yet another day I read about a shooting near Union Station. All of these violent crimes occurring within days of each other. I grew up in Colorado and these are all places I have spent time as a kid as well as time with my children and grandchildren. For the first time in my life, crime in Denver concerns me.
Recently I was on a trip to Fort Worth, Texas. There I met a woman who owns a shop in the historic Stockyards, and when she found out I was from Colorado she relayed to me her experience with Denver. Every January, she said, she and her friends would come to town and stay at the Brown Palace Hotel. They would attend the National Western Stock Show and when not at the National Western Complex would walk the 16th Street Mall visiting shops and eating at the restaurants. She said they did this for years and always looked forward to their Denver visit. But three or four years ago she and her friends began feeling less safe on the mall. They decided to forego any future visits because of the discomfort they were experiencing downtown. I could relate as I too have seen the mall and the Pavilion area change over time and have stopped visiting these areas with my family. As a fourth-generation Coloradan, I was embarrassed by this woman’s story.
Now, I have cautioned peers and students not to jump to conclusions based on anecdotal evidence, but like the three recent shootings downtown and the woman’s story, my fears are confirmed by the metrics. Denver homicide rates have increased approximately 50% from 2019 to 2020 and are on pace to be even worse in 2021.
I understand there are several variables to the crime rate, and it is, as we say, a multi-varied equation. But one major, and I mean major variable that adds to the crime rate is fewer police officers on the street. We are now seeing, in this super-charged political climate, the loss of good, young officers and police departments unable to fill those vacancies due to funding and/or the available talent pool of prospects.
Let me explain why the number of officers is important and their effect on the crime rate. The first question is, do we, as a community, have a police attrition problem?
Over the past few years we have seen something unprecedented — a movement by activists and politicians to defund the police and through laws, place extraordinary liability burdens on individual officers. Many of these laws carry heavy punitive measures for officers who might err in their work, primarily in police use of force. It has been these players (mainly politicians) who have been the driving force in police officers leaving through early retirement; going into another line of work, or transferring to another law enforcement agency in a smaller community.
While statistics show that some police departments have seen little movement in the form of attrition of officers, others have seen historic numbers of cops deciding to get out. In speaking recently with a high-level police manager in a suburban Denver metro area department, the word “hemorrhaging” was used to describe the numbers of officers leaving the agency. In this specific department the annual attrition rate is approximately 8%, however, in the past 12 months they have seen an increase in that rate of over 40%. Twenty four (24) officers have left this specific department in about a year’s time and account for more than 10% of their sworn, P.O.S.T. certified, staff. I asked this individual what he/she attributed the exodus to, and his/her response was first and foremost, politicians and recent laws. The message is that legislators care more about protecting perpetrators than those individuals (police officers) who protect the community, and they (the politicians) would rather bow to the minority of constituents screaming for racial justice than partner with law enforcement to develop a sound strategy for helping their neighborhoods.
The death of George Floyd and the need for better policing is not lost on this manager, but they say actions by legislators have been overkill, disproportionate to the problem, and in many cases, counterproductive to maintaining a safe community. If this were a famous rock mockumentary, the legislature had the amplifier turned up to an 11 when probably a three or four would suffice (my words, not theirs). I asked if movements such as Black Lives Matter have had an impact on individual officers, to which they replied that the BLM movement has had a minor effect on the psyche and morale of officers, but nothing compared to the passage of Colorado legislation in 2020 and 2021.
I wanted to know where these officers were going after leaving their department and was told that a majority of them were going to smaller agencies, in little, mostly rural or ex-urban communities where the local environment was more friendly to police officers and, most important, where their contact with the public was much less frequent and, in most cases, much less serious in nature. Did you catch that? These officers, after we have been emphasizing the importance of community contact and partnering with the public for as long as five decades now want less interaction with civilians because of the liability. A sad statement about our current environment to be sure.
Another factor for larger agencies losing good cops to smaller communities is that many of these smaller police departments are now paying generous signing bonuses for lateral transfers.
So then if we do see an attrition problem, at least in many law enforcement agencies, the question becomes, why are the number of police officers important? First, more police officers on the streets equal less crime. Several studies tell us this: Glick and Tabarrok’s 2005 study, the 2019 Mello study, and even the Chalfin and McCrary study from 2010. Specifically speaking to societal costs, the research by Chalfin and McCrary tells us that for every $1 a law enforcement agency spends on a police officer, the return is $1.63 in benefits to the community (mainly through less murders). In 1994 and 2009 we had the Crime Act and Recovery Act, respectively. The first championed by then-Democratic President Bill Clinton, also known as the Clinton Crime Bill, and the second signed into law by President Barack Obama. Funds from each of these bills went, in part, to hiring additional police officers.
On an academic level I must remind readers that correlation does not equal causation, but the evidence arising from these two laws are compelling. The 1994 Crime Act which provided funding for law enforcement hires showed that cities receiving funds had greater decreases in crime than those cities that did not participate. In the case of President Obama’s Recovery Act, for every police officer hired, on average, there were four violent crimes and 15 property crimes prevented.
One caveat for those who want to pick apart my assertion that more police equal less crime: More police equal less crime when compared to a proportionate citizenry. In other words, if my population grows at a rate of 3% per decade and I put more officers on the street but only at a 2% rate, crime, theoretically and with all things remaining the same, may increase.
Another reason numbers matter when we are addressing officers on the street is deterrence. Decades and decades of studies have shown us that there are three major factors that affect who and when a crime is committed. 1. swiftness, 2. certainty, and 3. severity. The latter, severity, or the price one pays for committing a crime, can only be imparted by the legislature and the courts. So that leaves both swiftness and certainty, where the onus is on law enforcement. How quickly a perpetrator is caught plays a role in the possible commission of a crime. If a perpetrator thinks that he or she will not be identified or even caught until a much later date, their chance of committing a crime increases. This is also true for the variable of certainty. If a perpetrator understands there is a likelihood or certainty of being caught, that too will play a role in their calculation on committing the offense. Deterring crime, or the proactive nature of policing is critical to lowering the crime rate.
Keep in mind that for every 100 crimes committed, there are not 100 different men or women responsible for those crimes. The recidivism rate in Colorado is approximately 50% (according to the Colorado District Attorney’s Council) which means that for every two inmates released, one of them will re-offend. Nationally the recidivism rate is about 44% that an inmate will return to prison in the first year of his/her release; about 68% in the first three years, and 77% over a five-year period. To put it more plainly, within five years of release from prison, there is a three-out-of-four chance the perpetrator will re-offend. These statistics are why we need police on the street in both a proactive role as well as just being seen and interacting with the community.
And while I am a huge proponent of more officers on the street, and firmly believe numbers matter in reducing the crime rate, they must be the right officers. And to get the right officers, officers who work in unison with the community and its leaders and maintain the highest possible standards, we must start in the recruiting and hiring process. Understand that there is no profession in which entry-level candidates are so aggressively vetted for deficiencies like that of law enforcement. Criminal and civil backgrounds, prior drug use, and even financial issues in a candidate for a police officer are all researched during the demanding hiring process. Interviews with family, friends and associates give hiring investigators a glimpse into that candidate’s personality and character, and even social media accounts are scoured to get a snapshot of that applicant’s personal life. All of this makes sense because of the magnitude of the job. The great responsibility and potential liability associated with protecting our communities are enormous. And on the part of the specific law enforcement agency there must be an investment in the right candidate. The first-year cost of a police officer is around $100,000 and the price tag for the hiring process and initial training is approximately $30,000. Make no mistake, this is a significant investment. Which is why when police funding is reduced, or legislatures are sending a message that an officer had better not make a critical mistake on the job, then we have lost the two most important tools in going after the best candidates: money and support.
Everything has a cost. Not just things we purchase, but decisions we make. And that includes decisions made by our communities and our elected representatives. Some costs are easier to absorb, while others are critical and even fatal. Losing qualified and well-trained police officers I would attribute to the latter. That is why losing police officers is disturbing at best, especially when it is preventable. But it suffices to say that there is solid rationale why we, as a community, want our tax money to pay for large numbers of qualified, well-trained police officers.
Just as with any occupation there will be poor police officers. Those who don’t interact well with the public, those that can’t handle stressful situations, and those that have lost their moral compass. What we know is that similar to the vast majority of crime being perpetrated by a small minority of offenders, the vast majority of officer misconduct incidents and citizen complaints are attributed to less than 5% of our law enforcement personnel.
The double whammy for police departments is not just that good, qualified, and trained officers are leaving after considerable investment by their department, but now those agencies can’t find qualified recruits to fill those vacancies. Fewer of the “best and brightest” want to put themselves under the public microscope and risk their financial security or worse, freedom, in the event they make an error on the job. Police departments find themselves in a position that if legislatures don’t give officers the acceptable latitude to do their jobs without fear, those departments are then forced to take candidates that previously would have been deemed substandard. This is the last thing we need, especially in minority communities.
The “defund the police” and the “let’s punish police for making a mistake” strategy are losers and only speed up the attrition rate of good officers. It also ensures that top officer candidates go into other professions. We are then, as a community, left with our second, third or last choices to fill these vacancies. Instead of defunding or punishing, legislatures should put taxpayer money to use in hiring and maintaining good, qualified officers to protect the public. As of now, their petulance is leading our communities to throw the baby out with the bathwater.