By the numbers: A quick look at the costs and benefits of more police

By , February 14, 2011

Of the few cost-benefit studies that have focused on law enforcement, two have examined the return on investment of hiring police personnel. In 2006, economists John Donahue of Yale University and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago released a cost-benefit study of a national police hiring program run by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS). The study found that a restoration of $1.4 billion in COPS funding (the original cost of the program in 2006 dollars) would yield $6 to $12 billion in benefits. A 2010 study by Paul Heaton, an economist at the RAND Corporation, also concluded that it is cost-beneficial to hire more police. The City of Los Angeles, according to Heaton’s analysis, could generate benefits of $475 million annually if the city invested $125 million to $150 million annually to increase the size of the police force by 10 percent.

The studies use similar definitions of costs and benefits. Benefits are defined in terms of the tangible and intangible costs of crimes that are avoided because of the crime prevention impact of having more officers. Tangible costs involve direct financial costs to individuals, businesses, and government from out-of-pocket expenditures or lost productivity. Intangible costs include the reduced quality of life resulting from victimization or fear of crime; the monetary value of intangible costs is derived through a variety of techniques described in Heaton’s study. These benefits are balanced against the costs of adding more officers, which include police salaries and fringe benefits.

These studies support the notion that hiring more cops can be cost-beneficial, but as a practical matter, it’s unlikely that jurisdictions will be able to afford significant expansions of their police forces in the foreseeable future. And, as criminologist Lawrence Sherman noted in his presentation “Less Prison, More Police, Less Crime: How Criminology Can Save the States from Bankruptcy” at the National Institute of Justice,  the benefit society gets from having more police “depends entirely on how the police spend their time.” What can law enforcement agencies do with their existing—or even shrinking—forces to control and prevent crime? Sherman points to problem-oriented policing, hot spots policing, and situational crime prevention as promising and cost-effective policing strategies. We’ll discuss these strategies in our next posts.

Resource: RAND’s cost of crime calculator lets you calculate the costs and benefits of hiring police officers in your jurisdiction.

All this month, the Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank for Criminal Justice (CBKB) examines how cost-benefit analysis and other forms of economic assessment can help identify efficient and effective policing policies and practices.

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