A thinner blue line, David Thacher on the growing gulf in public safety

April 26, 2011

David Thacher explores the growing gulf in public safety between haves, have-nots.

Flint and Ann Arbor, Mich., are roughly equal in size. But that's where the comparison ends. Ann Arbor is home to a rapidly growing tech industry, a highly educated and affluent population, and a $26 million police services budget. Flint is the birthplace of both Michael Moore and General Motors, but home to neither. Instead, the city is home to high poverty and unemployment, one of the most startling violent crime rates in America, and a $17 million budget shortfall that forced Flint Mayor Dayne Walling to lay off more than 60 officers last year alone. As a result, the most recent national figures show that Ann Arbor has more than seven times as many officers per violent crime as Flint does.

Unfortunately, these disparities aren't unusual, explains David Thacher, associate professor of public policy and urban planning at the Ford School. Thacher's research casts a spotlight on the growing national trend of public safety disparities—one that he'd like to see reversed. In 1967, in response to a series of race riots that broke out across the nation (one of the worst of them in Detroit), President Lyndon Johnson appointed an advisory commission to investigate why the riots had taken place, and what could be done to prevent a recurrence. The commission's report, which uncovered extensive complaints about police abuse in poor, black neighborhoods, concluded by saying that these concerns might actually be overshadowed by another belief: that "ghetto neighborhoods are not given adequate police protection." A spate of new research examined this claim.

Much of this research, however, focused on examining policing disparities within cities, explains Thacher. In New York City, for example, researchers would investigate whether the city allocated more officers to Harlem or Park Avenue. What researchers found was that police departments distributed their officers pretty evenly between high and low income areas. They valued equity, and sent officers out to address crime wherever it occurred.

What researchers didn't investigate, however, were disparities between cities—in part because the data were much more difficult to compile. To explore this, Thacher spent months compiling data on the number of officers, number of violent crimes, and demographic characteristics of some 20,000 police department jurisdictions in the United States. His discovery: that wealthy, white jurisdictions did indeed have far more police per crime than poor, predominantly black ones. In fact, he explains, the contrast has become increasingly pronounced since the 1970s. Today, the whitest jurisdictions have seven times as many officers per violent crime as the blackest ones.

This may seem a fairly obvious point to anyone who lives in a community plagued by high crime rates. But as a matter of public policy, contends Thacher, the glaring inequity in police protection files surprisingly under the radar of analysis or debate.

So why the disparity? Mainly, it's a matter of funding.

To illustrate, let's take the example of education. In America, education has always been a local concern. The one-room schoolhouses of our grandparents' generation were constructed and paid for by local residents. The teacher's salary and supplies came from those same pockets.

During the Civil Rights movement, however, the problems with this system became glaringly apparent. Schools in white, wealthy neighborhoods had significantly more funding than those in poor or black ones, with the wealthiest five percent of school districts spending more than two and a half times as much per pupil as the poorest. To address this problem, Washington and state governments intervened, providing funding intended to reduce those inequities. These efforts continue to this day, and are important means of extending equal opportunities to all children—regardless of wealth or race.

Like schools, firehouses and police stations have also historically been built and financed by local residents; however, without significant federal or state revenue sharing, the inequity has grown. Case in point, Ann Arbor (with a median home value of $200,000) has a well-funded department, while Flint (with a median home value of $62,000) has a much thinner blue line.

Ultimately, these disparities mean some neighborhoods suffer enormously from crime, says Thacher. As a consultant for the Boston Housing Authority, Thacher once interviewed residents, managers, and local police at the Mission Main and Orchard Park Housing Developments to better understand and address their public safety needs. What he learned was that safety in those neighborhoods was a huge concern, particularly in Mission Main, which unwillingly hosted the largest open-air heroin market in New England.

High crime has spillover effects, too, he explains. "Police get so strapped in these places that they can't attend to the everyday quality-of-life issues—like public drinking, noise, and street harassment—that we take for granted in places like Ann Arbor." As a result, quality-of-life declines as people spend more time indoors, become suspicious of their neighbors, and lose trust in government.

Flint and Ann Arbor

Thacher's research, which explores policing disparities in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, notes that the problem has worsened over time—with one exception. In 1994, President Clinton signed a bill ("COPS") designed to allow local communities to hire 100,000 officers across the nation. The federal government eventually spent $9 billion on this effort, making it, Thacher says, "by far the largest police revenue-sharing program in U.S. history." That funding narrowed the inequality slightly, but only made a dent in the underlying problem, says Thacher. "While COPS was a large program, it only covered one percent of the total amount spent by local police jurisdictions." In education, by comparison, state and federal funding covers more than 50 percent of school expenses across the nation today—the result of more than three decades of new revenue-sharing policies in that field.

Some have argued that public safety—like leaf removal, public art programs, or parks—is an optional service that taxpayers choose when they select a community. If a community isn't providing the level of services and taxes that residents demand, they can move to another that does. Thacher, however, argues that public safety has far more in common with education than it does with leaf removal. In fact, he believes, it's a right we're all entitled to, and as such, should be distributed equitably.

In the spring 2011 edition of The Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Thacher's article, "The Distribution of Police Protection," explains these issues in detail. He also explored them at a recent meeting of the Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. At that meeting, prominent scholars in policing and public safety joined emerging and established police leaders to discuss the field's most pressing contemporary challenges and opportunities.

There, Thacher argued that scholars and police leaders needed to explore new variations on the status quo. "For all its virtues, our extremely decentralized approach to policing faces more and more challenges in the contemporary world," he says. "It's mismatched to new problems like homeland security and cybercrime, it enables disparities to continue and grow, and it locks the country's police resources into particular places, even as crime and safety problems move around." One of the participants in the Executive Session was Christine Nixon, the former commissioner of Australia's Victoria Police. "She was baffled by our American system," says Thacher. "She can reallocate officers all across the province of Victoria, which is about as big as Arizona in size and population. If there's a problem over here, she moves police here. If there's a problem over there, she puts them there. But if we have a problem in Saginaw or Flint, we don't send police from Ann Arbor."

Dayne Walling, the mayor of Flint, probably wishes we would. In the meantime, he told State & Hill, he's looking for alternate solutions. The C.S. Mott Foundation recently provided a grant to maintain some of Flint's foot patrols and conduct an independent analysis of the city's "Minimum Strategic Service Level," the lowest possible number of officers required to respond to safety needs. That analysis, conducted by Michigan State University researchers, set the baseline at 150 officers—23 more than Flint now has on active duty.

In the face of continued budget shortfalls (and a paucity of state and federal revenue-sharing options), Walling is hoping Flint's voters will recognize the need to at least maintain current funding levels for safety services. This May, Flint ballots will include two millage proposals: $2 million to continue to fund 16 Flint officers (if this doesn't pass, Walling will be forced to extend the layoffs), and $2 million to reopen the city jail (state and local officers believe this will help prevent crime). According to the results of a small, independent survey, some 60 percent of the voters were in favor of a third millage proposal, too—another $2 million to hire additional police and fire department personnel—but the proposal was rejected by City Council.

At the Ford School, Thacher regularly teaches courses on values and ethics in public policy, and notes that the equitable distribution of police—and the equitable distribution of safety—is an important and currently overlooked value. "Caring about public policy means caring about whether policies are good or bad, and how well they serve the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society," says Thacher. "Right now, the funding mechanism for public safety doesn't allow us to do that."

--Story by Erin Spanier

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2011 State & Hill here.