Police are not primarily crime fighters, according to the data

(Reuters) – A new report adds to a growing line of research showing that police departments don’t solve serious or violent crimes with any regularity, and in fact, spend very little time on crime control, in contrast to popular narratives.

The report was published Oct. 25 by advocacy group Catalyst California and the ACLU of Southern California. It relies on county budgets’ numbers and new policing data provided under the state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act, which took effect in 2019.

The law requires police to report demographic and other basic information about their work, including the duration of a stop and what actions were taken, like ordering someone out of a car.

Records provided by the sheriff’s departments in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and Riverside showed the same longstanding pattern of racial disparities in police stops throughout the country for decades. Black people in San Diego were more than twice as likely than white residents to be stopped by sheriff’s deputies, for example.

More notably, researchers analyzed the data to show how officers spend their time, and the patterns that emerge tell a striking story about how policing actually works. Those results, too, comport with existing research showing that U.S. police spend much of their time conducting racially biased stops and searches of minority drivers, often without reasonable suspicion, rather than “fighting crime.”

Overall, sheriff patrol officers spend significantly more time on officer-initiated stops – “proactive policing” in law enforcement parlance – than they do responding to community members’ calls for help, according to the report. Research has shown that the practice is a fundamentally ineffective public safety strategy, the report pointed out.

In 2019, 88% of the time L.A. County sheriff’s officers spent on stops was for officer-initiated stops rather than in response to calls. The overwhelming majority of that time – 79% – was spent on traffic violations. By contrast, just 11% of those hours was spent on stops based on reasonable suspicion of a crime.

In Riverside, about 83% of deputies’ time spent on officer-initiated stops went toward traffic violations, and just 7% on stops based on reasonable suspicion.

Moreover, most of the stops are pointless, other than inconveniencing citizens, or worse – “a routine practice of pretextual stops,” researchers wrote. Roughly three out of every four hours that Sacramento sheriff’s officers spent investigating traffic violations were for stops that ended in warnings, or no action, for example.

Researchers calculated that more of the departments’ budgets go toward fruitless traffic stops than responses to service calls — essentially wasting millions of public dollars.

Chauncee Smith, a senior manager at Catalyst California, told me they wanted to test the dominant media and political narrative that police agencies use public funds to keep communities safe.

“We found there is a significant inconsistency between their practices” and what the public might think police do, Smith said. “It begs the question of why we keep doubling down on public safety strategies that have been proven time and time again to fail.”

The departments were mostly non-responsive to my questions.

Riverside Sheriff Chad Bianco said the data — which is self-reported — is flawed. All four departments declined to answer specific questions about how officers spend their time, and didn’t provide contradictory information.

The prevailing political myth about police work was echoed again in August, when President Joe Biden announced his administration’s “fund the police” measure to support hiring more cops around the country over the next five years.

“When it comes to fighting crime, we know what works: officers on the street who know the neighborhood,” Biden said.

Most of the existing research flatly contradicts that account.

In 2016, a group of criminologists conducted a systematic review of 62 earlier studies of police force size and crime between 1971 and 2013. They concluded that 40 years of studies consistently show that “the overall effect size for police force size on crime is negative, small, and not statistically significant.”

“This line of research has exhausted its utility,” the authors wrote. “Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police.”

Decades of data similarly shows that police don’t solve much serious and violent crime – the safety issues that most concern everyday people.

Over the past decade, “consistently less than half of all violent crime and less than twenty-five percent of all property crime were cleared,” William Laufer and Robert Hughes wrote in a 2021 law review article. Laufer and Hughes are professors in the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department.

Police “have never successfully solved crimes with any regularity, as arrest and clearance rates are consistently low throughout history,” and police have never solved even a bare majority of serious crimes, University of Utah college of law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman wrote in another 2021 law review articleincluding murder, rape, burglary and robbery.

Existing research also affirms the findings in the recent report on police work in California.

Law “enforcement is a relatively small part of what police do every day,” Barry Friedman, a law professor at the New York University School of Law wrote in a 2021 law review article.

Studies have shown that the average police officer spent about one hour per week responding to crimes in progress, Friedman wrote.

Police spend most of their time on traffic violations and routine, minor issues, like noise complaints, according to three different, recent analyses of dispatch data from The Angels, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, Seattleand New Haven, Connecticut.

The New York Times reviewed national dispatch data from the FBI in June 2020, and found that just 4% of officers’ time is devoted to violent crime.

“We hope the report helps reshape the narrative about the relationship between law enforcement and safety,” Smith told me. Californians “should understand that a reimagination of community safety is far overdue and that equitable and community-centered solutions” are more effective alternatives.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com

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