By Tim Kovach
Thursday at noon, Clevelanders will settle in for the lone mayoral debate in what has proven to be a contentious election season.
There are a number of major issues at stake. Should we trust Frank Jackson, a man who doesn’t seem particularly enthused with his job, as the first four-term mayor in Cleveland history? How should we balance development in downtown with that in the city’s neighborhoods? Should we continue to commit tax dollars to megaprojects, like the renovation of The Q? How can we begin to bring down Cleveland’s incredibly high infant mortality rate? How should we address the disturbingly high levels of lead poisoning among Cleveland children, particularly children of color? Will we ever actually stem our ongoing population loss? And besides, can a mayor really do much of anything to improve fortunes in the Most Distressed City in America?
But, in municipal elections, as in local news, if it bleeds, it leads. Zack Reed — the longtime city councilman who managed to finish second in the nonpartisan primary, putting him into a runoff with Mayor Jackson next month — has focused almost exclusively on violent crime issues. Last year, there were 136 homicides in Cleveland, a 13% increase over the 120 homicides that occurred in 2015. This number, in turn, was up from 102 in 2014. Cleveland is one of the handful of large cities that have recently seen a noticeable spike in violent crime, running counter to the trend over the past few decades.
The solution our candidates are presenting may not be the answer. On the contrary, new evidence is emerging that aggressive policing may actually increase crime rates, particularly in communities of color.
At Thursday’s debate, you can expect the candidates to spar over this issue. Reed’s campaign slogan is “Safety First!” and his social media feed largely consists of a series of headlines and tables documenting the increasing number of homicides in Cleveland. He has made hiring 400 new Cleveland police officers the central plank of his campaign. To hear the councilman tell it, the only thing that can stop these bad guys with guns is a whole lot more good guys in blue with guns. In July 2014, Reed pushed for implementing stop-and-frisk in Cleveland, arguing that “police should have every tool in their tool box.” Later that year, when federal funding allowed Cleveland to hire 15 new officers, Reed demanded the city hire 200. When Police Chief Calvin Williams testified about staffing levels before the City Council in march, the councilman chastised the mayor, asking, “Why isn’t the mayor giving you 250 [officers]?”
Mayor Jackson, for his part, has largely slow-walked the violent crime issue, perhaps cognizant of the fact that he is overseeing a Cleveland Police Department (CPD) going through yet another consent decree for what the Obama era Justice Department termed “a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The mayor has taken some notable steps to address violence in recent months, including deploying “violence interrupters” to local hospitals, creating a new anti-gang unit, and partnering with the FBI on cold cases. And in recent weeks, Jackson has begun to take on his challenger over public safety issues. The mayor has chided Councilman Reed for not identifying how he would pay for 400 more officers, even as he calls for adding 300 new officers by 2020.
To be fair to Councilman Reed, hiring more officers is not his only public safety proposal, but it’s certainly his focus. According to Plain Dealer columnist Mark Naymik, “Reed’s promise to hire 400 cops is still a potentially winning message because nobody is against hiring more police.”
Yet, there are some key questions that have not been asked in all of this back-and-forth on policing, chief among them, Would hiring more officers really reduce the amount of crime in Cleveland?
If you subscribe to the thesis that Jill Leovy laid out in her landmark book, Ghettoside — namely, that aggressive policing does nothing to lower crime rates, and cities need to prioritize solving violent crimes in order to prevent new ones — then the solution our candidates are presenting may not be the answer, and may only serve to further distress relations between CPD and communities of color.
Furthermore, new evidence is emerging that aggressive policing may actually increase crime rates, particularly in communities of color. A recent study in the journal Nature Human Behavior, for instance, found that “the initial deployment of proactive policing can inspire additional crimes that later provide justification for further increasing police stops.”
To explore this issue, I analyzed the data in the FBI’s 2016 Crime in the U.S. report, which includes crime and policing statistics for nearly every city in the country.
I considered a handful of interrelated questions. First, does Cleveland actually have fewer police officers than other cities? Second, is there a relationship between the number of police and crime rates in American cities? And third, how has the number of police correlated to crime rates in Cleveland over the past two decades?
Contrary to what local leaders have said, Cleveland does not have an abnormally low number of police officers. The city has 1,444 officers. In a city of of 386,227 people, that’s 37.39 officers per 10,000 residents, which was the ninth most among all American cities during 2016.
Based on population, we would expect a city of Cleveland’s size to have 1,045 police officers. If we remove New York City — an extreme outlier — from the analysis, that number of expected police in Cleveland drops to just 860. In other words, Cleveland’s 1,444 officers is at least 27.6% (and as much as 40.4%) more than we should expect. As I noted earlier, Councilman Reed and Mayor Jackson have called for adding an additional 400 and 300 police officers, respectively. In these scenarios, Cleveland would have 47.74 and 45.15 police per 10,000 residents, which would put the city in second only to Washington, DC.
To examine the conventional wisdom — namely, that more police lead to less crime — I ran correlations between crime rates and policing levels. And, contrary to what we’re hearing, neither the number of total law enforcement personnel nor the number of police officers correlate with lower crime rates. Quite the opposite — the national dataset suggests they are associated with significantly higher rates of violent crime, homicide, and property crime. The correlation between the number of officers and violent crime, for example, suggests that adding an additional 7.13 officers per 10,000 residents is related to a 53% increase in a city’s violent crime rate.
Now, of course these results need to be taken with several grains of salt. We know that correlation does not equal causation. I did not control for any number of variables that can affect crime rates, from gun control to drug abuse to poverty. It’s always possible to get some crazy spurious correlations. Additionally, there could be an observation bias at play here. The number of crimes made known to police could well increase as the number of police goes up.
That said, the direction of the correlations is consistent, and they are fairly strong. This should at least throw some cold water on the notion that all we need to reduce crime is more police. Using the national dataset for police and crime, we can estimate that Mayor Jackson’s suggestion of adding 300 more police in Cleveland would correlate to an additional 19.4 murders a year, and that Councilman Reed’s additional 400 police would correlate to an additional 21.3 murders.
But, as with everything, averages are just collections of extremes, so it’s always worth narrowing in on a specific city’s dataset. Cleveland has its own unique set of challenges, from persistent population loss to extreme poverty to a prolonged housing crisis to opioid addiction. So I looked at the relationship between law enforcement personnel and crime rates in Cleveland from 1995 to 2016 (except 2014 and 2015, when the city did not report data).
Over that span, the number of police officers in the city did decline, from an average of 1,821 from 1995-1999 to an average of 1,522 from 2009-2013 to 1,444 last year. But total population has also declined by more than 100,000 people over this timeframe, meaning that the number of police officers per 10,000 residents has not deviated much. In fact, Cleveland had more police per 10,000 residents in 2016 than it did in 10 of the 20 years in the sample.
Based upon that analysis, adding 167 police officers (roughly returning to 2006 staffing levels) is correlated with a 64% increase in property crime. Despite what the national dataset suggests, additional police officers in Cleveland did not result in a significant increase in violent crime. But additional staffing certainly didn’t result in a decrease in violent crime.
Ultimately, while the same caveats hold here as for the national sample, the Cleveland-specific data casts further doubt on the idea that simply hiring more police will drive down crime rates. If anything, my results support the recommendations of groups like Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero, which have called for scaling back aggressive policing, particularly in communities of color.
Every interaction between police and a person of color over minor infractions like a broken tail light or jaywalking — the likelihood of which goes up with the addition of more police — is an opportunity for that encounter to turn violent or even deadly. And, as Mayor Jackson has rightly noted, hiring more CPD officers will inevitably consume funding that could be directed elsewhere.
In 2017, Cleveland has budgeted $199,579,996 for the Division of Police, up from $190,616,127 last year. This accounted for 32.9% of the total budget, making policing the biggest expenditure in the city. According to the administration, adding an individual officer costs $104,000 per year, meaning that the proposals on the table could add $31.2 million to 41.6 million more to the city’s expenses.
What else could we do with $30 million to reduce crime and improve Clevelanders’ quality of life?
Councilman Reed loves to say that “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” He has called for setting aside additional city funds for summer jobs for city youth. This year’s budget allocated $500,000 to employ 250 residents in the annual summer youth employment program; with $30 million, we could increase that number to 15,000.
Cleveland continues to struggle with some of the highest rates of lead poisoning in the country. A recent study found that 40% of Cleveland children entering kindergarten had dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can adversely affect IQ and impulse control (the latter of which can impact violent crime rates). In June, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) restored lead abatement funding to Cleveland, granting it $3.4 million. Setting aside one-tenth of the cost of hiring 300 new police would enable the city to match its HUD grant and truly tackle this crisis head on.
Hell, $30 million is $5 million more than the City has set aside for the mayor’s much-hyped Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative. The city could potentially double the number of neighborhoods included in this program.
But that’s not where we are in this mayoral election. Much of the impetus for deploying more police is coming from residents themselves. Nevertheless, Clevelanders should be able to expect their elected officials will make decisions that are in the best interest of their constituents and based on evidence.
Instead, we get candidates more interested in fear mongering. We get leaders, like Council President Kevin Kelley — perhaps the front-runner to replace Mayor Jackson in 2021 if he wins this year — saying that we should “take away the statistics, take away the trends in what’s going up or down,” because the violence is so widespread.
Perhaps the moderator of Thursday’s debate can get the candidates to speak to evidence and data, and not to emotional appeals.
Banner photo credit: Steve Gusky
Tim Kovach is an independent analyst and blogger from Cleveland who researches and writes about climate change, disaster risk reduction, and transportation at timkovach.com. His work has appeared on Grist, Vox, and Scientific American.