October 17, 2020

Let’s Talk About the Costs of Not Fighting Crime


Good morning, 

Recent months have seen a robust debate over “defunding” the police. One problem with these discussions is that they have focused almost exclusively on one side of the cost equation -- the cost of running a police department, 90% of which is personnel.

What’s been missing has been any real attention to the other side of this equation, and that is the cost of crime – to individual victims and their families, to communities, and to governments. All of them bear the staggering costs of crime in our society.

As cities have cut police funding, departments have had to cancel academy classes, leave vacancies unfilled, and even cut existing personnel.  But what about the consequences of these reductions in personnel? What is their impact on crime and, consequently, on the cost of crime? Who is paying attention to these questions, as homicides and shootings are spiking in cities across the country?

Let’s get specific.  This past week, I interviewed two PERF member police chiefs who have been dealing with “defunding” of their departments, and at the same time are seeing spikes in homicides and shootings.

Oakland, CA:  First, I spoke with Susan Manheimer, who was named Interim Chief in Oakland, CA last April. Oakland has seen a sharp uptick in homicides this year, which coincided with the onset of the COVID pandemic. Oakland had 76 homicides in 2017, and 75 in 2018, but in just the first nine months of 2020, 79 homicides.

Susan told me that it’s disheartening, because Oakland had been making great progress in recent years, with a homicide rate that was declining every year since 2012, when the city had 131 murders. She attributed the increase this year to several factors related to COVID, including the release of jail and prison inmates, and the recent unwillingness of the court system to incarcerate persons arrested for illegal gun possession, even if they have multiple prior crimes.

Even though violent crime is going up, Oakland’s city council unanimously voted to create a task force charged with writing a plan for “reimagining” the police department and cutting the police budget by 50% over the next two years.

New York City:  The next day, I interviewed NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, who told me a similar story. As of October 11, New York City experienced 354 homicides this year, compared to 264 killings during the same time period in 2019.

And just like Oakland, NYC is facing major budget cuts despite the increase in homicides. According to NYC’s Independent Budget Office, earlier this year, the NYPD’s total planned budget for 2021 was cut by $472 million.

“We’re getting killed here with a resources issue and the defund movement,” Dermot told me. “You’re talking about thousands and thousands of fewer cops on the street, at a time when crime has really taken off.” 

Putting a Dollar Value on the Costs of Increased Crime

Susan and Dermot’s stories rang a bell for me, because they both involve cutting police budgets during a time of increased homicides and other crimes.  A decade ago, PERF member chiefs helped with a major study by RAND, which put dollar figures on the costs of crime.  

The RAND study considered various types of costs of crime, including:

  • Property losses;
  • Medical treatment of victims (which sometimes continues for many years, especially in the case of shooting victims);
  • Criminal justice system costs of investigating crimes, prosecuting defendants, and incarcerating offenders; and
  • Lost productivity when victims are injured or killed.

RAND calculated the following approximate costs for each crime in the standard crime categories:

  • Homicide: $8.6 million
  • Rape: $217,000
  • Robbery: $67,000
  • Agg. Assault: $87,000
  • Burglary: $13,000
  • Larceny: $2,100
  • Motor vehicle theft: $9,000

Of course, property crimes had much lower costs than violent crimes. Homicides cost the most, because when a life is ended, the victim’s economic contributions to society are abruptly stopped.

Note that the average cost of an aggravated assault is also high, at $87,000, because this category includes nonfatal shootings. This is an important category in many cities.

For example, in NYC, the latest statistics show that the number of shooting victims increased 99% so far in 2020, compared to the same time frame in 2019.  That’s an even greater increase than the 34% increase in homicides.

The costs of sexual assaults are also high, because the trauma to victims often lasts a long time, resulting in significant victim assistance costs.

Let’s use the RAND research to calculate the economic costs of the increases in homicides in New York City and Oakland that I mentioned above:

New York City:  The city had 90 more homicides from Jan. 1 to Oct. 11, 2020 than during the same time period in 2019. Multiply 90 homicides by $8.6 million each, and the cost of just the increase in homicides is $778 million.

And as this was happening, New York City cut its Police Department’s budget by $472 million.

Oakland:  Oakland is on course to have approximately 30 more homicides in 2020 than in 2019.  Multiply 30 homicides by $8.6 million, and you find that the economic costs of this increase in homicides will be nearly $260 million.

And as this was happening, Oakland created a task force to plan a 50% cut in the city’s Police Department budget.

Making the Connection: Cops Can Reduce Crime

It’s not enough for police chiefs to point out the high costs of crime.  They must also explain to their communities that these costs can be averted to a large degree, because cops actually prevent a great deal of crime, especially when they work in concert with the community.  

The shorthand way that many chiefs use to express this is “cops matter.”  If there’s one thing the policing profession learned in the 1990s, it’s that police officers, deployed effectively and strategically,  make a difference. Deploying them in hot spots prevents crimes.  “Pinpoint Policing,” targeting the most frequent offenders, can actually yield reductions in shootings and homicides.

We also know that when a city’s homicide rate goes up, it is the police department that is held accountable. So reducing the police budget while homicides are soaring seems counterintutitive. And when you look  at what a homicide costs, both in human terms and financial terms, it is hard to think of a more compelling time to invest in prevention and policing than right now.

You shouldn’t have to put a price on human life, but if you do, how can anyone justify cutting the budget of the very agency charged with preventing the next homicide?

Here’s a Useful Tool for Calculating How Budget Cuts in Your Department Might Impact Crime

RAND has created a fascinating tool for using its research to calculate how budget cuts could affect crime, and the costs of crime, in your city, county, or town.

It’s called the Cost of Crime Calculator, and it’s available here.

You can use this tool, right this minute, to get a dollar figure for the current costs of crime in your city, as well as an estimate of how much crime would increase, and the costs of crime would increase, if you had to lay off officers because of budget cuts.

It only takes a couple minutes to use the Cost of Crime Calculator.

Here’s how it works.  You plug in your current number of officers, and how many officers you might potentially need to lay off. 

Then you plug in the number of crimes your city or town currently experiences per year in each of the major crime categories:  murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft.

Most chiefs probably can rattle off close estimates of those numbers off the top of their head, or they can look up the exact numbers in a minute.

Plug in those numbers, and you’re done. The RAND calculator then tells you how layoffs of, say, 20 officers, or 100 officers, or any number you choose could be expected to affect the number of crimes your city will have in each category of crime.

And it tells you how those increased crimes would increase the costs of crime in your city.

Of course, the costs of crime begin with the terrible human costs to victims and their families.  Any discussion of crime must first be based on the concept of the sanctity of human life.

But this RAND research provides an interesting, pragmatic approach that police chiefs can bring to their elected officials.  As cities contemplate proposals to defund police departments and cut personnel, it is important for police chiefs to challenge their local officials about the very real and human costs of not investing in the fight against crime – especially as homicides and shootings are spiking.

Good cops make a difference. And often it’s the difference between life and death.

I hope you find this interesting and useful. Have a good weekend.