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Spelman skeptical of request for more officers in APD budget

Thursday, August 25, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

As the city inches closer toward adopting its FY2012 budget, City Council Member Bill Spelman and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo remain at odds over how best to fund the Austin Police Department. The two men continued their debate on the subject yesterday, when Acevedo went before Council to present his department’s proposed $282.9 million budget, a number that includes funds for 49 new sworn officers.


Those 49 officers are necessary, said Acevedo, if the city wants to maintain its ratio of 2 officers per 1,000 citizens.


Spelman, who has written several books and articles about police work and spent seven years with the Police Executive Research Forum, expressed his skepticism again Wednesday that the 2-per-1,000 ratio is necessary to maintain the city’s low crime rate.


Commenting on a chart Acevedo presented comparing the staffing ratios and violent crime rates of several major American cities, Spelman noted that there seemed to be an inverse relationship between the two, that the most violent cities – such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta — also tend to be the most heavily policed. Meanwhile, Sam Jose, Calif., has a lower violent crime rate than Austin but with a ratio of only 1.44 officers per 1,000.


“It looks backwards,” Spelman told Acevedo. “Why does it do that?”


Acevedo responded that when it comes to appropriate levels of police staffing, “there is really no national standard, no magical number that exists.” He said that many considerations – such as population density, community demographics, location and size of an area, community engagement, and police deployment strategies – all play a role in determining the proper ratio for a particular city.


The difference with a city like San Jose, for example, is that they have the California Highway Patrol doing a lot of their work, a luxury Austin doesn’t have, said Acevedo.


“There is a direct correlation between police visibility and bad outcomes, and they have a pretty large footprint of the state police that we don’t have,” Acevedo said.


Spelman pointed out that Acevedo and the department are looking to promote 14 officers to the rank of detective in the coming budget year in the belief that more detectives mean more precise and better police work. He said that holding on stubbornly to the 2-per-1,000 ratio could actually be hurting the department’s ability to investigate and prevent crimes.


“If we hold ourselves to a hard, fast ratio … we are draining resources that could be used for more detectives or more evidence technicians (or) 911 operators,” Spelman said. “(It) reduces your flexibility to be able to move your resources around to the places where they can do the most good.”


Police Department Chief Of Staff David Carter responded that those 49 additional officers are needed to address and head off “threats we see on the horizon,” such as an increase in crime, a reduction in police clearance rates, and a reduction in officers’ “uncommitted time” – time they are simply out on the street not responding to calls.


An officer on uncommitted time, said Carter, “is going to prevent crime by establishing relationships (with citizens), and they’re also actually going to solve crime by establishing those relationships.”


In 2010, the department’s average uncommitted time was about 27 percent, down from 31 percent the year before. “That’s a red flag for us, because it means we’re becoming more reactive and less proactive, less preventative to address some of those issues,” said Carter.


Acevedo agreed. “The number one priority of the department is to prevent crime, not to respond to crime and not to solve crime,” he said. “And the way that you prevent crime is by a highly visible police department that has the ability to build relationships. That’s where our greatest challenge is now, with our uncommitted time, and our visibility is what we want to impact, and the way we’re going to do that is by having those sworn bodies.”


Spelman said that while an increase in uncommitted time is a good thing, he remains unconvinced that an increase in the number of cops on the street will have the same positive effect.


“I am less sanguine than you are that if we were able to increase that uncommitted time to a higher number, the increase in police visibility all by itself would have a measurable effect on the crime rate,” Spelman said. “I’m not sure the record is that clear. What studies I’ve seen over the last 30 years suggest that just more patrol by itself won’t do a lot of good.”

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