Shootings in Newark surged 43 percent after New Jersey’s largest municipality fired 162 police officers in November. Camden burglaries rose 65 percent after the state’s poorest city shed half its force in January.
Democrats and unions blame Governor Chris Christie, a first-term Republican who cut municipal funding by $445 million last year to help balance his budget. Though many studies reject a direct link between fewer cops and more crime, the issue may still prove a political hurdle for Christie.
U.S. cities from San Jose, California, to Cleveland have fired police amid budget deficits, leading to claims of increased response times and stretched departments. Christie, whose cuts have won him national attention, was elected a year before a record 29 new governors took office this January, including 17 cost-slashing Republicans. His 2013 re-election race would be a test of residents’ response to such reductions.
“I voted for the governor, but I regret it,” said Joe Adade, 53, owner of a shoe shop on Halsey Street in downtown Newark, who holds Christie responsible for the crime jump. “Police officers don’t come around here anymore because now they have to be all over town.”
Trenton, New Jersey’s capital, said in July it would fire 108 police officers, a third of the force. New Jersey has 3,800 fewer cops now than in January 2010, when Christie took office, according to the state Policemen’s Benevolent Association. Narcotics and gang units have been placed back into patrol, and beats assigned to communities and schools “have been forgotten,” said Anthony Weiners, president of the union.
Nationwide, crime has dropped annually for more than a decade, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which released preliminary 2010 statistics in May. If violations rise this year, it will be because of the public-safety cuts, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police-officers union.
“They’re basically creating the perfect storm in a laboratory,” said Pasco, a 25-year veteran of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “All of those things that led to crime reductions, especially cops on the street who know their beat, won’t be there.”
In Camden, which has rehired 74 of the fired officers using federal grants, murders rose 37 percent this year through Aug. 1, according to the county prosecutor’s office. Total violent crime rose 11 percent.
In Newark, where a quarter of its 280,000 residents live in poverty, crime reduction has been a priority of Mayor Cory Booker. In January 2010, he announced a 21 percent decrease in offenses since 2006, the year he took office, including a 46 percent drop in shootings. That March, the city posted its first murder-free month in 40 years.
This year through July 31, shootings are up 43 percent from the same period of 2010, murders and auto thefts are each up 19 percent and robberies are up 15 percent, according to the city police department.
“It’s crazy out here,” James Stewart, first vice president of the Newark Fraternal Order of Police, said July 16 while listening to the police scanner in his personal car.
That evening, a reporter invited to accompany Stewart to police scenes observed many of the same officers responding to nearly every call that came across the radio for their precinct, one of four that covers the 24-square-mile city. A standoff with a suicidal man tied up dozens of police, fire and rescue workers for nearly an hour.
Any link between police staffing and crime is a matter of dispute among criminologists.
Many U.S. police forces decades ago passed the point where adding more officers has the effect of lowering crime, said Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Kleck cited experiments in Kansas City in the 1970s and Newark in the 1980s that found increasing patrols had no effect on crime. Job training, drug treatment and programs to reintegrate ex-prisoners play a more direct and substantial role, he said.
“What has been happening to cities like Newark is that inner-city economies are crumbling,” Kleck said in a July 14 telephone interview. “What that means is that Newark’s municipal government doesn’t have the tax dollars to pay for police and so they lay off officers, but it doesn’t mean those layoffs caused higher crime.”
Researchers at San Diego-based National University, who compared crime rates with staff levels in 24 cities and counties over a 12-year period, found “some but not overwhelming” support for the view that more cops equals less crime. The study didn’t account for factors other than staffing that might have affected the rates.
Wayne Fisher, a former Newark cop who is executive director of the Police Institute at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice, said manpower reductions on the scale of Camden and Newark go beyond the level of cuts used in previous crime studies. Fewer police make it impossible to direct increased patrols to areas experiencing spikes and erode the ability to solve crimes and conduct investigations, he said.
“I don’t think anyone doubts the fiscal crisis for states and cities is real, but there’s no free lunch here,” Fisher said in an interview. “The cuts made to police have had an impact and will continue to have an impact on public safety.”
New Jersey police departments are historically among the best-staffed in the nation. New Jersey, the 11th-largest state by population, had 389 sworn officers per 100,000 people in 2008, the third-highest ratio, according to U.S. Justice Department data, which are collected every four years. The national average is 251 per 100,000.
“Crime is an issue of perception: if the general public makes a link between cuts in aid to cities and rising crime, it makes no difference” whether that connection is real, Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville, said in a phone interview. “If crime goes up and you’re the incumbent, you are responsible.”
Christie’s job rating fell to the lowest of his term in a June poll by Quinnipiac University, with disapproval from 47 percent of voters. The governor has battled with unions over his cuts in funding for schools and municipalities.
The governor, during a July 26 appearance with Booker in Newark on job creation, said he doesn’t expect to lose support over the crime issue. Police unions are also to blame for refusing concessions that would have saved jobs, he and Booker said.
“We’re not responsible for making those choices at the municipal level,” said Christie, 48. “We only have the money that we have and can’t spend more. In the end, government is about making choices, and the municipalities are facing their own choices as well.”
Booker said that crime rose for the six months following his firings and has come down since June. He declined to comment on whether residents blame Christie. Booker said his own approval has risen in internal polling after a 20 percent drop following the cuts.
“My Twitter account blows up anytime there is a shooting, with people telling me to hire the police back,” Booker said. “The perception problem is very tough. If you ask the average Newark resident if crime is worse now than it was last year, most of them will say yes. The reality is that it’s not, but it’s very difficult to fight against that.”