I received a letter in the mail the other day from the "United Police Society of Mt. Lebanon," requesting that I (as a Mt. Lebanon Resident -- the letter wasn't addressed to me personally!) contact my five Commissioners and express my thoughts about the state of the Mt. Lebanon Police Department. It's an interesting letter, especially for what it does not say, and for how
it says what it does. The point of the letter seems to be that the residents of Mt. Lebanon are getting a lot of public safety bang for their taxpayer buck, and that suggestions that staffing or budgets should be cut (or both) are misguided. I assume that the "United Police Society of Mt. Lebanon" is not itself an authorized part of the Mt. Lebanon Police Department -- but I also assume that its interests and the interests of the Department are essentially identical. For my purposes, they are one and the same.
Here are the claims of the letter (typed as they appear in the letter), and some reactions."The Mt. Lebanon Police Department accounts for 17% of the annual municipal budget. Most municipalities' average 30-55% of their total budget."
Reaction: More detail is needed before these numbers mean anything. What are "most municipalities"? Let's consider suburban Mid-Atlantic municipalities with total populations between 25,000 and 50,000 people and low crime rates. Is Mt. Lebanon still low compared to its peer communities? What proportion of budgets in those types of communities (total municipal budget, and police budget) consists of salaries and wages? What proportion of *those* numbers consists of overtime? Again, how does Mt. Lebanon compare to its peers?"According to Department of Justice recommendations based on call volume and population, we should be staffed by more than 60 officers."
Reaction: I wish that a source were cited for this claim, because my intuition resists the idea that the federal government is in the business of telling local municipalities how many police officers to hire. But I could be wrong; the only way to resolve the issue is to look at the document or report or whatever it is. I did some searching at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The source that seemed closest to supporting this claim was this chart
, but it can't be the right one. (In itself, the chart states that PA police departments employed 153 sworn officers per 100,000 residents as of 2004. Scale that back by 3 to get an average for a city of 30,000 or so and you get 50 officers, then remember that the PA data is skewed by including the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Remove those, and the average number of sworn officers goes down further.)
I'm even more suspicious of claims about staffing based on call volume, because I'd like to see statistics on how those calls break down. How many are crimes-in-progress? How many are child-is-missing? How many are cats-in-trees? My neighbor used to call the police to complain about leaves in my backyard blowing against the wall of her garage. Seriously. And the Police Department, following procedures, eventually knocked on my door to tell me, in sober, professional tones, how embarrassed they were to have to respond to this. Police Departments can't always know in advance what they are really responding to when a "leaves against garage" call comes in, but the number of "crimes in progress" or "burglary reported" or "child is missing" calls impresses me more than the raw number of total calls. Mt. Lebanon is not unknown territory; the Police Department doesn't operate entirely in the dark, either."We are currently allocated as a 44 officer police department. In addition to our regular patrol duties, these 44 officers are trained in and perform the duties of a police department consisting of well over 100 officers. A small sample of the special services that we provide includes: DARE officers, Child Safety Seat Installations, Citizen's Police Academy, K-9 patrols, Adopt-a-Business program, Bike Patrol, Motor Carrier Inspectors, Child ID cards, Home & Business Security Surveys, Fingerprinting Services, Driver's Education, Special Response Team, and many more."
Reaction: How did we go so quickly from 44 real officers to 100 hypothetical officers? The account of special training and programs, not all of which are of equal significance or value to the community, suggests that "100 officers" is the number that we would get if each of those special programs were staffed with full-time officers. Is that right? If it is, that's really odd; there is no reason to suppose that a municipality of our size would need any full-time officers to staff "Fingerprinting Services" or "Child Safety Seat Installations." For many months of the year, we have no need for "Bike Patrol." If it's not right, how did the "100 officers" number get computed? Overall, this claim gives the impression that the Mt. Lebanon Police Department is either supremely efficient (yay!) or is stretched so thin that public safety issues are going unaddressed (boo!). Perhaps they have just the right number of officers for the jobs that the Department is asked to do. I've lost track of the number of times that I've seen multiple police vehicles parked on Washington Road, dealing with a traffic stop involving a single vehicle. That may be wise protocol, but it suggests that there is no shortage of manpower.
"In order to focus on current crime trends, we provide specialized units to better serve the community. They include: Patrol, Crime Prevention, Traffic Services, Investigations, and Records & Alarms."
Reaction: This sounds like solid but standard organization and management, not anything special or specially adapted to current crime trends. (There are current crime trends in Mt. Lebanon?)
"In 2007: -- We handled over 30,000 calls for service. -- MLPD Officers made over 750 arrests and wrote over 4000 traffic citations. -- Through grants and enforcement we earned revenue of over $312,000.00"
Reaction: Good work! The 4000 traffic citations caught my eye, because I wonder how many of those were issued to Mt. Lebanon residents and how many were issued to other drivers.
Overall: With 44 full-time officers, Mt. Lebanon has about 1.5 officers per 1,000 residents. That ratio - number of full-time officers per 1,000 residents - is often a starting figure for calculating the "right" level of police personnel. Large, dense, diverse cities often have higher ratios (2.5 officers up to nearly 5.0 officers); smaller, less dense, more homogeneous, low crime jurisdictions often have lower ratios (close to 1.0). Other factors affect the number for any given place. (Among them is the number of supervisors in a department; on that particular point, my instinct is that Mt. Lebanon comes off relatively well. We don't seem to be top-heavy.)
Having surfed around the Web quite a bit, I couldn't find a standard formula good for all places, and I could find lots of surveys, often commissioned by larger cities, that concluded that no standard formula exists. This document, published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police
, argues that "Ratios, such as officers-per-thousand population, are totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions. . . . Defining patrol staffing allocation and deployment requirements is a complex endeavor which requires consideration of an extensive series of factors and a sizable body of reliable, current data." In the end, the 1.5 officers-per-1,000 residents ratio that we have seems neither high -- nor clearly low.
Let me clear that I am not criticizing the Mt. Lebanon Police Department. Mt. Lebanon is a small town. Many readers of this blog know (or are!) members of the public safety communities here, and they and I know that raw statistics often cannot convey the full measure of the services that our police officers and firefighters provide. Not every investigation yields a traffic ticket or an arrest. Some arrests and investigations dramatically understate the significance or difficulty of the issues involved. I mock my neighbor for complaining to the Police Department about my leaves, but in my years in Mt. Lebanon I have had occasion to call on the Police Department for serious work, and the response, professionalism, and service has been stellar. I have much to be grateful for.
I do believe, though, that if our public safety departments want to take their claims directly to the residents and taxpayers of the community, then they should be held to the same standards of performance, responsibility, accuracy, and accountability in presenting those claims that we should apply to other aspects of local government -- including the administration of the Municipality, the School District, the Parking Authority, Public Works, and so on and so forth. Actually, those standards should apply whether or not the case gets made directly, as it was in the letter that I received, or not, as it is during regular budgeting processes.
As any good lawyer knows, overstating your case ultimately undermines your credibility. If, on the one hand, the Police Department is arguing that it is rightly staffed and budgeted today, then it is difficult to assess that claim based on the data in the letter, though I have no reason to doubt the Department's sincerity. If, on the other hand, the Police Department is arguing that it is understaffed and overwhelmed and crime is at risk of spiraling out of control in Mt. Lebanon, then the letter simply hasn't shown that to be the case. More data and more detail are needed. And if that's the case, then the Commission should act accordingly.
Labels: mt. lebanon police department