Does More Police Mean Less Crime?

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Police officers on street

The NSW liberal government was returned to power with a comfortable majority over the weekend.

If you were following the election campaign, you might have noticed that both Premier Mike Baird and opposition leader Luke Foley engaged in a good deal of ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric in their attempt to win over voters.

One measure promised by Baird was $100 million towards high-tech police equipment and an extra 310 police.

Labor has criticised the pledge, saying that it is simply a “re-announcement” of the government’s 2012 promise to add an extra 309 officers to the force, when it ultimately delivered only 129.

But the fact is that Labor made similar promises during the election campaign; with Foley promising over $240 million towards new technology for policing, more secure police stations and, of course, more officers on the beat.

Crime statistics can be a useful tool for electioneering – and both sides of politics selectively used statistics to push their ‘tough on crime’ agendas. Part of the justification for increasing police numbers is that more police equates to less crime; but is this really the case?

Do more police really lower crime rates?

The theory behind high-visibility policing is that potential offenders are deterred from committing crimes if they observe a large police presence on the streets.

But studies in both Australia and abroad suggest otherwise. One experiment in the UK found that more police on foot patrol had no impact on levels of crime. And a report by the Victorian ombudsman similarly found no clear evidence that “more police = less crime”.

The Victoria study noted that the theory behind high-visibility policing fails to give proper consideration to the varied nature of crimes, highlighting the fact that most crimes are not committed ‘on the street’, but in homes and other private venues, and on computers.

The report also found that while it is possible that a heavy police presence in a particular area may reduce crime in that area during the police presence, such operations tend to merely shift the location of crime to another area or to push potential criminals into other types of criminal activities, rather than reducing crime overall.

One US study found that, counter-intuitively, more police on the streets can be a risk factor for increased crime if the officers act rudely, provocatively or aggressively. It found that the act of approaching civilians without sufficient reason can be a trigger for the commission of crimes such as offensive language, resisting arrest and assault police – the so-called ‘trio of offences’. It can also reduce respect for the police force and thereby encourage anti-social conduct.

Targeting the cause, not the effect

The policies of both State and Federal governments are characterised by increasing funding to police and law enforcement agencies while at the same time cutting funding to social services.

But many argue that channelling funds away from social services and towards law enforcement is unlikely to reduce crime rates in the long term.

Poverty, unemployment, mental illness and alcohol or drug abuse can all lead to crime, and many argue that the emphasis on enforcement does nothing to alleviate the root causes of offending conduct, and may even be counter-productive.

They argue that a better approach is to target the causes of crime, rather than just putting more uniformed police on the street, and locking more people up for longer.

Greater levels of funding on community housing, social support services, crime prevention programs, drug and alcohol programs and legal services is seen as a better use of funds, and as more likely to reduce crime in the longer term by addressing the reasons behind why people commit crimes in the first place.

But for many politicians, appearing ‘tough on crime’ and promising funds to police is a better way to win votes. This is perhaps why the ploy has survived in political rhetoric for so long, despite scant evidence to show that it actually works.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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