Some public-safety cuts are actually good for public safety

Has Sacramento benefited from less?

In Sacramento and beyond, law-and-order agencies are down to their lowest staffing levels in five years. Popular wisdom says these cuts are bad for public safety. But no one’s asking the obvious follow-up:


Local law-enforcement officials themselves admit that—while they’re no fans of what attrition has wrought—their fiscal woes forced them to get smarter and humbler.

An end to the budgetary largesse that resulted from the housing boom has meant more community engagement and less empire building. Departments along the criminal-justice chain are breaking down their silos and reaching out across county lines to sister agencies they once treated like competitors rather than partners.

Poverty has made for a somewhat kinder, gentler justice system.

Let’s check out some examples.

Internal-affairs complaints to both the police and county sheriff’s departments have dropped sharply since 2008, when staffing levels were at their peak and crime rates were higher. Investigators attribute this to better training procedures and new technology—like video cameras in every patrol cruiser—but also because there are fewer young officers on the street.

Over at the county probation department, staffing is down from a 2008 high of 985 employees to 649 today. This has resulted in 10,000 low-risk probationers receiving no supervision whatsoever. Which is actually a good thing.

This population reoffends at a low 5 percent clip, and recidivism rates actually climb with intense supervision, said Suzanne Collins, assistant chief probation officer.

The county district attorney’s office shed 85 employees since 2009. As a result, the office no longer files cases on lesser misdemeanors, like arguing with the cops, some petty thefts and small-time drug charges.

That’s the good news. One of the cases the DA declined to prosecute, if you recall, involved a bunch of Occupy Sacramento folks overstaying their welcome at Cesar Chavez Plaza. The crime of the century, it was not.

Not all cuts are good for public safety. One of the DA’s surrendered positions was a community prosecutor that mediated recurring neighborhood problems like revolving-door drug dens and motel operators who turned a blind eye to prostitution, said assistant chief DA Karen Maxwell.

And at the extreme end of the spectrum is Stockton, which had to bring in federal authorities to stop the near-bankrupt city from devolving into a demilitarized zone.

Cut too much and you hit bone; but trim the fat, and you force us all to get healthier about how we view the role of law enforcement in a democratic society.

For instance, more mental-health resources—not cops—will do more to stop a two-year hike in officer-involved shootings and protect officers from being the first responders when an unpredictable mental collapse occurs.

Cops, prosecutors and jailers will always serve vital roles in protecting our society, but maybe the forced drawdown from a cruddy economy is the natural check our politicians were too cowardly to enact.

As the city of Sacramento considers how to divvy money raised by a one-year sales-tax hike known as Measure U, that’s something to remember.