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Bite Out of Crime-Fighting

Memphis Police Department deals with looming budget cuts.

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Budget cuts to the Memphis Police Department (MPD) next fiscal year seem likely as overall city budget pressures begin to mount, but some wonder if cutting police services makes sense in a town with a reputation for high crime. Others say it is time the MPD starts doing more with less.

City finance officials have warned the Memphis City Council that budgeting for 2015 will be especially challenging. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton wants them to find $15 million in the city's budget to start plugging the $709 million gap in the city's pension plan so he doesn't have to try to raise taxes.

Financial advisors from The PFM Group said current budget strategies aren't sustainable and specifically targeted police and fire budgets as they are the largest pieces of the city's overall budget. A PFM Group study called the current public safety model "cost prohibitive" and said it is necessary to find new and more efficient ways to deliver public safety given the city's budget challenges.

The current "boots-on-the-ground" model has swollen the MPD ranks of sworn officers by 26 percent in the past seven years, from 2,024 officers in 2006 to 2,550 in 2012, according to the study. Paying all 3,028 MPD employees cost Memphis taxpayers more than $208 million in the 2013 budget.

But the PFM study said Memphis has done less with more compared to other cities. Violent crime in Memphis fell 20 percent from 2002 to 2011, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data. But Nashville reduced its police force and lowered its violent crime rate by 22.7 percent from 2006 to 2011.

"No other Tennessee city came close" to Memphis in the level of staffing per capita in 2011, according to the report. Nationally, Memphis is an outlier in cities of a similar size that have seen reductions in violent crime because it has increased the number of sworn officers at a greater rate than all of them.

But the size of a police force should be driven by the overall workload, not the size of the city's population, according to Leonard Matarese, director of research in the Washington-based International City/County Management Association's Center for Public Safety Management. Sworn officers, he said, should spend at least 60 percent of their time on police work, and getting to that figure should drive the size of a department.

"A good example of this is the fact that the New York Police Department has fewer officers today than it's had in 30-plus years, but they have the lowest crime rate they've ever had," Matarese said.

Municipal budgets are strained around the country, Matarese said, and police departments have "learned to work smarter." Some use civilians for dispatch. Some have worked closer with social service networks to free up the time of sworn officers. Other cities have even merged their police and fire departments.

MPD director Toney Armstrong said he's looking for ways for the department to run more efficiently. He said MPD responded last year to more than 100,000 calls that didn't have to be handled by police, such as burglar and car alarms and animal control calls, and hinted at reforms to the city's response policy.

As to the safety of Memphis, Armstrong said he was proud that the Memphis crime rate dropped 4.5 percent in 2013 from the previous year even without a new recruitment class last year and with a hiring freeze that left dozens of positions empty.

 "The numbers speak for themselves," he said. "We've been asked to do more with less. But you don't want to put yourself in a position to ask me to do less with less." 

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