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Minneapolis is hiring more police officers. Here’s why some advocates argue that won’t make the city any safer.

Advocates want the city to focus on the social factors that cause crimes, rather than just catching and punishing offenders.

Earlier this month, the Minneapolis City Council approved funding to add 15 police officers — 12 that will work in the city’s precincts, and three that will be dispatched with mental health responders.

It’s the kind of public safety measure that, in the past at least, might’ve drawn widespread support from citizens.

But at the public hearing before the funding passed, some Minneapolis residents opposed the addition of more police officers. Instead, they wanted the money to support more community programs aimed at preventing violence in the city.

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“(I urge you) to oppose an increase in the police department budget and to support instead community solutions to community issues,” one resident told the council.

If the goal is to make everyone — regardless of skin color, income level, sexual orientation or gender — safer in their communities, could hiring fewer police officers — or even reducing the size of the force — actually work?

Department staffing levels

With a rash of violent crime in North Minneapolis this year, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau says the department needs more resources to reduce violence and build better relationships with the communities officers police.

By the end of the year, the Minneapolis Police Department will have 874 sworn officers, a number that puts it close to the staffing levels it saw in 2008.

Minneapolis Police Department - sworn staffing
This chart shows the number of sworn officers the Minneapolis Police Department had at the end of each year from 2002 to 2015.
Source: Minneapolis Police Department

Both Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Harteau would like to see the number of sworn police officers in the city above 900 by 2021, Harteau said.

If Minneapolis doesn’t have enough officers, “They will simply be managing a 911 call load — you will see crime as a whole increase because that’s exactly what happened when all we were was law enforcers,” Harteau said, referring to a time just over a decade ago when she said police were understaffed, swamped with 911 calls, and crime rates were high.

“There certainly is — when you look at the (statistics) — a direct correlation of the number of officers with crime trends,” Harteau told MinnPost. “As you can see, when we have fewer officers — part one (which includes homicide, rape and aggravated assault) crimes, especially, go up.”

Crime in Minneapolis, 2002 to 2015
The chart below shows crime in a given year. Part I crime includes homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson. Part II crime includes simple assault, vandalism, weapons, prostitution, sex offenses, narcotics, DWI and other crimes.
Source: Minneapolis Police Department

There’s some disagreement over the correlation in the number of police and crime rates. At a certain point, raw numbers don’t matter so much as how police are doing their jobs, some research finds. (Also worth noting: lower crime levels could in some cases reflect a lack of trust in police — resulting in fewer reported crimes, said Michelle Phelps, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.)

Harteau seems acutely aware of this distinction. She said the 12 new officers not assigned to the mental health co-responder program will serve in community policing capacities.

“(Just) because we’re hiring more officers … that doesn’t mean the expectation is necessarily more law enforcement,” she said. “It can mean we have more people to invest in crime prevention strategies and other things,” like investigating crimes, she said.

Focus on public health

But activists like those who spoke up at the city council meeting say that when people don’t trust police, the worst thing you can do is add more of them, which does little to address the socioeconomic problems at the root of violence.

Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, one of the groups that opposed the proposed hiring of more cops, praised what it calls “safety beyond policing” measures funded in the city’s 2017 budget.

These include the mental health co-responder program; funding for community-driven public safety — where residents and business owners will have a say in interventions — in Little Earth and on West Broadway; and a group violence intervention partnership between police, the health department and community groups.

But many activists want more of this.

“We’re not talking about abolishing the (police) department tomorrow, or just wholesale eliminating cops off our streets,” said Tony Williams, an organizer with NOC, told MinnPost last week.  “I think what we are talking about is building this alternative network.”

Williams cited restorative justice, community outreach and public health approaches to reducing violence.

“We’ve seen that public health interventions and looking at violence from an epidemiological perspective can reduce violent crime quite a bit,” Williams said.

For example, he cited Cure Violence, a program developed by a Chicago epidemiologist and implemented in cities like Chicago, Baltimore and New York, as a way to prevent violence in communities where relations between police and residents are frayed. The idea of the program  is that people who witness violence are more likely to commit violence themselves. Trained community members — many of them former offenders themselves — predict where violence is likely to erupt and intervene with alternative means of resolving conflicts. High-risk community members can also be provided support, such as employment and drug treatment.

According to an evaluation by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Baltimore program is associated with statistically significant reductions in homicide and nonfatal shootings, particularly in areas where mediators were most active. In interviews, researchers found community members were less accepting of settling disputes with guns. Participants also said their interactions with outreach workers were positive and could help prevent future violence.

But an August roundup of policing strategies in the Trace, a nonprofit news website focused on guns, called Cure Violence “promising but unproven,” when it comes to reducing violent crime, citing a book edited by criminologists led by David Weisburd at George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

The approach worked much better in places where more effort was made to implement it well, leading Daniel Webster, one of the Johns Hopkins study’s authors, to conclude,“Investing in the right guys to do this kind of work with good supervision clearly will pay off,” in an interview with the Trace.

In a 1993 piece in the journal “Health Affairs,” Mark Moore, then a professor of criminal justice policy and management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, argues preventative public health approaches are a good complement to law enforcement, but aren’t likely as effective in preventing violence.

One analogy to different approaches to reducing violence, Moore writes, is auto accidents. While public health approaches to make driving safer are helpful, “it may be that the reduction in traffic fatalities owes as much to the criminalization of drunken driving as to safer cars, safer roadways, or increased education about the dangers of drunken driving.”

Dollar for dollar

In terms of impact on crime, it’s difficult to compare, dollar for dollar, the effects of city spending on police departments, versus spending on social programs designed to target the underlying causes of crime in communities, said the University of Minnesota’s Phelps.

One criticism of social service models of reducing violence is that it’s difficult to focus them on the populations most likely to commit crimes.

“The problem with using social services to address crime is that, particularly for the types of crimes we’re most concerned about, the number of people involved in really far-end violent crimes is usually a very small portion of the community,” Phelps said. “When you spend money on social services that affect the community at large, you’re often not targeting the people who are committing the most violent crimes.”

While it’s true that efforts at reducing crime in the U.S. have pushed people into the criminal justice system, while spending on social programs has stagnated, “A lot of criminologists would say you have to solve the crime first,” Phelps said. “If you reduce homicide among youth in a community, then you can allow social programs to work.”

How to police

A recent study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati, which reviewed 62 studies conducted in many U.S. cities between 1971 and 2013, found that just having a larger police force police didn’t reduce crime levels.

“This line of research has exhausted its utility. Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police,” its authors concluded.

More police can reduce violent crime, but, “It depends on how you deploy those people,” Phelps said. “In terms of what the research evidence on these other violence prevention programs that are non-police-oriented, my sense is that in many cases, (non-police-oriented) programs do not have as solid of results in terms of reducing crime as the focused policing efforts do.”

One policing effort that shows promise, Phelps said, is called “focused deterrence,” also known as pulling levers or problem-oriented policing. Minneapolis is currently working with the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to implement the strategy here.

Under this approach, police officers meet with people at high risk of committing crimes, such as gang members and drug dealers, and tell them they will face consequences should they continue to commit violence or sell drugs. These high-risk individuals are then steered toward alternative pathways, such as counseling, housing, treatment and job training, by community organizations.

New Haven, Connecticut adopted a focused deterrence strategy in 2012. Within three years, the number of shootings per month dropped by about 73 percent, which researchers found could not be explained by other factors.

“You’re never going to hear me say putting resources into youth violence prevention is a bad idea. I think it’s a really important, really good idea. I do a lot of programs in that way,” said Robyn McDougle, associate professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University. “But if I also have police officers who are understaffed and overworked I know from the research and from experience that those officers are going to be more likely to lock juveniles up, because (they’re short on time) and it is an immediate move onto the next thing.”