Rapid cuts to city police forces linked to ‘significant’ spikes in crime

January 8, 2021

Cuts in police forces lead to dramatic spikes in crime, as data from Newark, N.J. shows. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Cities that make sudden cuts to their police forces could be inviting a lasting crime surge, new research suggests, with municipalities that lay off police officers in times of fiscal strain potentially trading public safety for a balanced budget.

According to research published on Dec. 21 in the Justice Evaluation Journal, data from the city of Newark, New Jersey, reveals that in 2010, a swift reduction in force size was followed by a surge particularly in violent crime, as well as in property crime and overall crime levels. 

“Our findings indicate that sudden and drastic reductions in police force size via police officer layoffs can generate significant crime increases,” co-authors Eric L. Piza of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Vijay F. Chillar of Rutgers University Newark said.

The researchers utilized data from Newark, which in November 2010 terminated 13% of its police officers in a bid to offset budget deficits stemming from the 2008 financial crisis, to take a closer look at the effect layoff-induced cutbacks had on the city’s crime levels in subsequent years. 

They also used crime statistics from Jersey City, a demographically comparable municipality that averted similar cuts to its police force at the time, as a control condition with which to compare the evidence out of Newark. The study design yielded a “natural experiment” from which Piza and Chillar could draw unique empirical insights from a real-world setting.

Piza, who was formerly a crime analyst with the Newark Police Department, told The Academic Times that data from around the time of the layoffs presented him and Chillar with an opportunity to investigate dynamics that hadn’t been addressed in prior studies on the link between police force size and crime.

“The vast majority of those studies … asked the question of, do cities with more police officers have more or less crime than cities with lower levels of police officers,” he said, or else, "They looked at very incremental changes in police force sizes, primarily through hiring [rather than firing].”

The situation in Newark was different, according to Piza. There, the force had seen an “immediate, drastic reduction, which to our knowledge hadn’t really been addressed in the literature” to that point.

Using monthly crime data from 2006 through 2015 furnished by the cities’ respective police departments, the researchers tracked trends in violent crime and property crime in each locale before and after the layoffs occurred. According to their analysis, Newark saw crime levels jump substantially after its police force was slashed.

After the layoffs, Newark’s monthly violent crime rate surged by 2.30 standard deviations, while overall crime rose by 1.10 standard deviations and property crime increased by 0.71 as compared to Jersey City. Adjusted for the size of Newark’s population, that increase means that over the five years following the cuts, the city saw about 108 additional violent crime incidents and 103 additional property crime incidents per month.

The researchers found that while the increase in property crime held constant in the five years following the layoffs, both the overall and violent crime increases grew progressively worse over time.

Piza said this could be evidence that budgetary stresses on the police department were compounding, forcing it to scale back or abandon progressively more of the resource-intensive practices — such as “hot spots policing” tactics focused on areas where crime tends to be concentrated — that were particularly effective in preventing crime to begin with.

“It’s possible that as the years went on, there were other programs that similarly had to be cut back,” he said, noting that more research would be needed to firmly establish that potential explanation.

Piza said his and Chillar’s article isn’t a referendum one way or the other on the movement to “defund” American police departments. 

Calls to reduce or eliminate spending on police have been launched into mainstream political debate since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020.

“The more thoughtful [police reform] proposals say that any funds that get taken away from police have to be reallocated towards other community-based crime prevention strategies,” Piza noted, contrasting that approach to the hasty, recession-driven layoffs he and Chillar studied.

“We need to be thoughtful about how we go about defunding the police,” he said. “Any funds taken away from police have to be reallocated towards other community entities that can do something about crime.”

The article “The Effect of Police Layoffs on Crime: A Natural Experiment Involving New Jersey’s Two Largest Cities,” published Dec. 21 in the Justice Evaluation Journal, was co-authored by Eric L. Piza, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Vijay F. Chillar, Rutgers University Newark.

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