Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Rational Thought About Realistic Needs: Police & Fire

January 15, 2007, 1:30 p.m.

"How Many Police Officers and Fire Fighters Does It Take To . . ."

The Gazette reports this morning that the Iowa City Council is supporting an expansion of the local police and fire department staffing (and budgets). Gregg Hennigan, "I.C. council agrees to hire more city firefighters, police officers," The Gazette, January 15, 2008, p. A1. Little questioning, let alone opposition, was reported.

By contrast, in its editorial this morning [Jan. 15] regarding a legislative proposal to invest an additional $240 million of Iowa taxpayers' money in "new and bigger prisons" the Register concludes:

If Iowa has learned anything from this experience [with prisons] it should be that there are cheaper and more effective alternatives to confining criminal offenders in highly secure prisons. . . . Iowa lawmakers have a lot of questions to answer before going on a prison building boom. Here are two: Is this necessary? And, what else will they do to avoid another building boom down the road?
Editorial, "Does Iowa Really Need Prison Building Boom?" Des Moines Register, January 15, 2008.

It's an approach worth applying to any proposed public expenditure.

To avoid an imminent lynching, let me make a couple points clear at the outset.

I like the police and fire fighters. There were times in my life when I wanted to join the ranks of both.

The functions performed by both clearly lie at the top of the list of primary governmental responsibilities -- as virtually any day's news out of Baghdad makes clear.

I have no problem paying my share of however much is needed in increased taxes to cover the costs of the most appropriate number of both.

So all I am addressing is the analytical adequacy of whatever process the City Council went through in coming to these conclusions.

1. There is no "right" number, no precise and firm way of saying what we "need," and whether whatever that need may be the numbers being urged by the Chief, and considered by the Council, are too high or too low.

2. Whatever the answer may be, the question involves what system analysts call a "peak load problem" (decisions in business, for example, involving a balance between the excessive cost of always having enough on hand of, say, shopping carts in a supermarket (many of which will be unused for most of the 168 hours each week), on the one hand, and the prospect of lost business during those hours of peak shopping cart demand if the investment in the excess carts is not made). Whatever the number of police officers and fire fighters we have, during any given hour of the 8760 hours each year, we will almost always have either fewer than we need or more than we need. Moreover, (a) the times of peak load cannot be precisely predicted, and (b) presumably all would agree that we "cannot afford" to keep hundreds on the payroll at all times in order to be adequately staffed during some worst case scenario when they really all would be needed once every ten or fifty years.

3. A fully trained and outfitted police officer with a car to match is not cheap.
Are there situations in which "less is more" -- for example, what we already do with police on foot or on bicycle? Are there functions he or she is performing that could be done more cheaply by others? Police officers used to be responsible for parking, tickets, and parking meter collections. Are we any less safe today since those functions have been handed off to others? Are there functions performed inside the station house that could be handled by other than police officers? We have 73 officers. If they work 2000 hours a year (50 weeks times 40 hours) that's 146,000 hours. How are those hours allocated among the tasks performed? How does that compare with other communities generally, or other college communities? If we had another, say, 10 officers (20,000 hours) what would the task and time implications of that be?

4. The problem of "overcrowded prisons" would be solved instantly if we'd treat alcohol and drug problems in "drug courts" instead of incarcerating drug users and if we'd stop throwing the mentally ill in prison instead of mental hospitals. Are there similar approaches to our police work that could radically reduce the necessary numbers of police officers (for example -- though I'm not in favor of it -- if we'd go all the way with our lack of concern about underage binge drinkers and leave it entirely, rather than just mostly, for bar owners to self-police)?

5. Whether or not we build more fire stations, what else can we do? As for fire department's "response time" I'm informed that little to no attention has been given to the problem of railroad trains blocking roads. It makes little difference how close the fire house is if your house is on the other side of a parked train from the fire truck. It wouldn't be that complicated to have an automated, computerized communication system from the railroads to a central fire department dispatching desk indicating which roads are blocked and which are open. So far as I know nothing has been done to create such a system (or a viable alternative accomplishing the same thing). There was once a community with a municipally owned cable TV system that attached smoke detectors in every home to the network (along with automatic water meter reading). As a result homeowners' fire insurance rates were cut in half -- along with a speed up, one would assume, in fire department response time.
Are there other things besides additional fire stations that we might do to improve response time? And what is the "optimum (and affordable) response time" anyway?

6. The City Council is looking at comparative numbers on the number of police officers per 1000 population in various communities. That is certainly one useful relative benchmark. Is it the best? Might it be more relevant to consider communities with crime statistics more similar to ours? Or demographic makeup of the population? Or college towns about our size (Ames has fewer officers per 1000 population than Iowa City)?

I'm not looking for an impossible-to-achieve precision. What I would like to satisfy myself exists is an analysis of our needs that goes beyond "security is very important; the police chief says he needs more police officers; therefore, I think we should give him some" and "gee, we really need another fire station for northeast Iowa City in order to improve response time."

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Anonymous said...

Drug and mental health courts are good programs but it is hogwash that they will instantly solve prison overcrowding because the number of qualified clients of drug court is small and such courts are very labor intensive.

At the moment there are about 9,000 Iowa prison inmates and in FY06 6,350 persons were admitted to prison and about 6,100 were released from prison resulting in an increase of about 250 in the prison population (these numbers are not exact but they give numbers in the proper range).

About 24% of those admitted were not sentenced prisoners (they were county jail holds, safe-keepers
and persons placed in the violator program) most of them were held less than five months.

About 42% were persons who were revoked from probation (a prison alternative), parole and work release (another prison alternative) and another 1% were some type of return. A very high percentage of those revoked are not threats to public safety and should not be in prison but they are there because they repeatedly violated the conditions of supervision. A 10% reduction in the total revocation rate would stop prison growth.

I think a reduction of that magnitude is possible and should be done to keep the problem from getting worse.

I think we also need a county wide "public safety summit" because were are short of police and firemen county wide and we need to pool our resources.

Anonymous said...

Good luck getting the volunteer small town fire departments to go along with that. Coralville and NL and the whole north Johnson area still depend on volunteer departments with mutual aid agreements.

There is a county wide ambulance service, there should be consideration of a metro fire/EMS department that is run by a board of elected officials from NL, Coralville, IC and Tiffin (Yes, Tiffin) with the Board of Supervisors. This would take some serious leadership and will.

Vacuite said...

I think a local policy of non-enforcement of crimes related strictly to underage drinking would be a great approach for Iowa City to take.

Taking this approach even farther and applying it to other strictly drug related offenses (possession of marijuana, for example) could certainly help in reducing the prison population.

As Mr. Neff said, many inmates are people who were revoked from probation. However, it is minor, non-violent, and victimless offenses such as these that often lead to the unsuccessful probation period preceding a term in jail.

If some statewide legislative solution isn't a viable option, Iowa City could definitely look into local policies of prioritization and non-enforcement.

Anonymous said...

In FY06 there were some Johnson County prison admissions where drugs was the most serious charge but they were B, C, and D felonies and a few aggravated misdemeanors. There were no serious misdemeanor possession of marijuana charges that resulted in a prison admission. Most such cases are cleared by a guilty plea and a fine and on occasion a short jail sentence.

There were also some repeat OWI prison admissions where the charge was enhanced to a D felony but no simple misdemeanor public intoxication charges because the vast majority were cleared by a guilty plea and a fine.

There are about 100 repeat public intoxication offenders who are sometimes sentenced to jail anywhere from a week to 30 days.

Probation revocations accounted for 26.2% of the prison admissions and 27.3% were revocations of parole, work release, OWI and shock probation.

By non enforcement of public intoxication and possession of marijuana I assume you mean cite and release. Some police officers already do that with possession of marijuana depending on the department and others will cite and release on a possession of drug paraphernalia charge (a simple misdemeanor).

I doubt very much that a police officer will cite and release a heavily intoxicated person. The average BAC for Iowa City pub intoxication arrests was about 0.16 or twice the legal limit for drunk driving based on a study I did several years ago.

The jail will try to release persons who are not a threat to themselves or public safety on cash bond and most possession of marijuana cases are in that category.

The probability of a Johnson County resident being sent to prison is about 0.1% about half the state average. The probability that a Johnson County resident will be booked into jail is 4.6%. The probability that the charge will be public intoxication is 26% and the probability the charge will be a serious misdemeanor drug charge is 8%.
Cite and release for possession of a small amount of marijuana would make a significant difference in the number of jail bookings.

Anonymous said...

A question I have on the number of police officers presented for Iowa City is if the University of Iowa Police force are included in the data. My assumption is that they are not but that at least a portion of the student population is included in the general population, resulting in a skewing of the officers/1000 number. To present a more accurate number shouldn't the U of I Police be included in the total number of officers available for Iowa City since they now have no general differences from the Iowa City force and the two departments share an overlapping area of service. Coordination of the two forces should allow duties to be distributed between the two groups, although the city will probably fight to keep their current revenue streams viable.