You wouldn’t know it by watching all the news about police-community conflict, or by going to protests against police racism and militarization, or by tracking all the Sacramento legislation on the use of force by law enforcement. But California’s biggest problem when it comes to policing remains the same:
There isn’t enough of it.
Of course, issues of police misconduct are real and serious, as recent stories from the racist police texts in San Francisco to the shooting of an unarmed homeless man in L.A. make plain. But underlying—and contributing to—these issues is the fact that California lacks the manpower necessary for the smart, effective policing of our very diverse and complicated communities.
California has long been distinguished by its sparse policing, with its small police departments unable to keep pace with population growth in vast cities. When Governing magazine crunches FBI data to show what you might call policing density across the country, the list of lowest per capita police staffing is typically dominated by midsize California cities like Anaheim, Irvine, Bakersfield, Stockton, Santa Ana, and Riverside.
But in recent years, police shortages in nearly every major city in the state—and most of the mid-level cities—have become significantly worse. In San Diego, instead of keeping apace with a growing population, the police department has 300 fewer officers than a decade ago, and half the current force of 1,800-plus officers could be eligible for retirement by 2017, according to multiple reports. The Fresno Police Department has seen a decline of more than 100 officers over the past decade. Los Angeles, after years of work mostly closely associated with former Chief Bill Bratton, reached its goal of 10,000 officers two years ago—and then immediately started seeing a slippage, as it struggled to find enough qualified people to replace retiring and departing officers. And the number of the police department’s civilian staff—analysts, technicians—is off more than a quarter since 2007, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In Oakland, which has one of the highest robbery rates in the country, the police force has lost nearly a quarter of its sworn officers since 2009. Even a plan from new Mayor Libby Schaaf to add 40 cops won’t make much of a dent, and funding it will require freezing other positions. Under the proposed 2015 to 2016 budget, Sacramento would top 1,000 staff for the first time since the recession, when the department lost more than 300. And San Jose may offer the bleakest picture for police staffing. That sprawling city of 1 million people now has fewer than 1,000 street-ready officers; some projections show the number dropping below 900 by the middle of next year. Some cops have blamed the decline—the department is more than a quarter smaller than in 2008—on a years-long battle between the police union and city hall over benefits and wages.
The impacts of such declines are seen in slower response times and in departments’ inability to investigate crimes like burglary. Cops also have to cover more ground and have less time to develop deep relationships within the neighborhoods they cover. Breakdowns in police-community relations are an inevitable result.
Nearly as many reasons are given for this decline as there are cops. Tight budgets during the recession. A surge in retirements of Baby Boomer officers. Lower interest in police work among the younger generation. The difficulty of finding enough qualified candidates. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that lured away military personnel who might have been cops. And the bigger salaries available to cops who work in the growing private security sector.
“The pool of qualified applicants out there is utterly dismal. We’re struggling to find good cops of any race,” Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin told the Washington Post last year. “And we don’t have any money to hire cops, by the way. We’ve lost 25 percent of our sworn staff since the recession, in a department that was desperately understaffed at our highest, facing a community plagued by violence.” The result, the chief said: just 11 officers patrolled the city of 154,000 on the average day shift. “It’s one of the lowest ratios in California, and therefore the lowest ratio in the country, because nobody has fewer cops than California.”
In California, there is another factor. The high salaries and generous pension benefits of police make employing cops an exceptionally expensive endeavor; benefit costs in California cities are crowding out other local services.
And disability leave and retirement rules that can be abused by police have become one of the state’s longest-running scandals; injury pay’s exemption from taxes means that cops can make more money by not working. Police union officials often defend such benefits by saying injuries are common because California departments are so short-staffed.
Of course, some might ask: with the historic decline in crime, who needs police?
That question is answered powerfully by Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter (and full disclosure: former colleague), in her new book, Ghettoside. Leovy, who has spent years digging deeply into homicide in Los Angeles, shows how even in this era of low-crime, homicide remains endemic in certain neighborhoods. In a different spin on the point that “Black Lives Matter,” she writes that we have too little enforcement of the law in some places, creating “impunity” for the murder of black men. “The state’s inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murders in black enclaves… is a root cause of the violence,” she writes.
There is a strong connection, she argues, between this failure and the complaints about police harassment and abuses. “The perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter. Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
In this context, the more than 20 legislative proposals in Sacramento to put more restrictions on cops—body cameras, changes in how deadly force cases are prosecuted—amount to treating symptoms of the policing disease, and not its root causes. Far more urgent, and challenging, is the work of rebuilding California’s police departments so our communities have enough good cops on the beat, with the time and training and resources to focus on the fundamental work of preventing violence.