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Police budget talk spurs Leffingwell attack on Spelman

Tuesday, September 13, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Council took a lengthy side-track on Monday when its members used a discussion about the city’s FY2012 budget to explore just what Austinites need in a police force. Council Member Bill Spelman gave his colleagues a fairly lengthy Power Point presentation on the merits of shifting some police work to civilians and eliminating some positions for new police officers. 


Mayor Lee Leffingwell then attacked Spelman, leaving some observers to speculate that Leffingwell was thinking about a possible battle with Spelman in next year’s mayoral election. 


In the middle of a discussion about whether the city should reconsider its policy of staffing a minimum police-civilian ratio of two officers for every 1,000 residents, Leffingwell called on his experience as a pilot, and the dual provoking images of the recent Bastrop fires and the September 11 attacks.


“In general, I’m having difficulty believing—after what has happened over the last week—hearing someone talk about reducing our public safety capabilities,” he said.


But Council Member Mike Martinez, a former leader of the firefighters union, sounded a conciliatory note, telling Spelman he appreciated his effort and would like to pursue the questions Spelman was raising.


Spelman offered his colleagues a presentation that looked to quantify the return on investment the city could expect, should it elect to hire 41 more police officers—as was requested by APD staff. He made his case using the well-discussed issue of regional traffic as a marker.


According to Spelman’s figures, crime costs Austin residents $1.1 billion, next to $500 million for traffic. “We have had a long conversation on traffic congestion,” he said. “We have not, as a community, had that kind of a conversation with that level of depth on the crime problem. If crime is more costly than traffic, we need to have that kind of a conversation.”


Spelman went on to note that, though this was an obvious issue for the city, “most criminal justice experts” would say that more officers don’t affect the situation. He quoted a 2004 National Academy of Sciences study. “[T]he standard model of policing . . . Has generally not been found to be effective either in reducing crime or disorder or decreasing citizen fear,” it reads.


According to Spelman—who is a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs –a 10 percent increase in officers produces a 1 percent reduction in crime. Using a standard $100,000 cost for each police hire, he calculated that the addition of 10 percent more Austin Police officers (160 hires) would cost the city $16 million.


He turned back to the $1.1 billion cost of crime, and noted that a one percent reduction would save the city $11 million. “Austin is one of those places where…additional police officers is not cost effective,” he said.


Spelman argued that an immediate reduction in police hires—from 47 to 31—would help pay for a departmental study and more focus on social intervention programs. He maintains that the latter are a more effective treatment for a crime problem.


That brought the lengthy rebuke from Leffingwell. He started with the fires, headed for the cockpit, and wound his way to question the ivory tower (read: Spelman) and its role in determining facts on the ground. “In my former life as a military and commercial pilot, of course we ran into this tension all the time between the folks sitting in the chair, behind the desk, and doing the analyzing and those of us who were actually out there doing,” he said. “All these folks who were giving us their opinions, even giving us hard instructions not only never strapped on an airplane…(but) there has never been, in the history of aviation, a case of a chair behind a desk going down in a ball of flames.”


Council Member Laura Morrison provided a second for his motion. But Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole made a substitute motion to begin the departmental study suggested by Spelman. Her motion was adopted.


After the hearing, Spelman refrained from further engagement. “There’s no reason to expect that the Mayor’s seen my resume,” he said. “If he had, he’d know that I’ve been working with cops for 30 years. It was my full time job to work with cops for seven years, doing some of the studies that I was citing here. Under my direction, the University of Texas trained 14,000 police officers in the practice of community policing,” he told In Fact Daily. “But the more important thing is not my own qualifications, it’s the basis for the judgment I was making. This isn’t based on my theory, this is based on the practice of hundreds of police departments around the country, and, in fact, many police departments outside of the country.”

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