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Budget Time – Comparing Richmond with Other Cities
June 4, 2003

The Richmond City Council is consumed with budget deliberations. Costs are up and revenues are down. City services are being cut across the board. Whole departments have been axed. Dozens of city employees have been laid off.


Woe to any of us who do not hold public safety as our City’s highest priority. I am reminded of when I campaigned for City Council in 1995, and Alex Evans’ mantra was “186 men and women in blue and not one less.” This seemed to go over well with the voters and garnered Evans some nice campaign photos with cops and police cars and endorsements.


At that time, the Richmond Police Department had 186 sworn officers; we were just coming out of a recession; homicides had been way up, and crime was a hot topic. Since that time, crime has plummeted in Richmond, as it has nation-wide. Homicides went from 62 in 1991 to 34 in 1996 and dropped to an all-time recent low of 18 in 2001. Since 1995, the number of authorized sworn officers in the Richmond Police Department has increased from 186 to 203, partly due to federal COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) grants.


According to Chief Samuels, of the 203 sworn positions, 18 are currently vacant; 20 are on medical leave, 15 of which are not working at all and 5 of which are on limited duty. That leaves approximately 175 fit for street duty. The current plan is to leave 12 of the 18 vacant slots unfilled for the next fiscal year.

I asked Chief Samuels if there was an “industry standard” for the ratio of police officers to population. He said FBI statistics show about two officers per 1,000 population in the western U.S. Surfing the Internet, I came across an article in the Topeka (Kansas) News showing that random comparison of 36 cities with populations ranging from 100,000 to 140,000 ranked Topeka 12th with a ratio of 2.21 police officers per 1,000 people. Bridgeport, CT, ranked first on the random list with 3.33 police per 1,000 citizens, and Sandy, Utah, rested at the bottom with 1.03 officers per 1,000.


Based on authorized number of sworn officers, Richmond has 2.03 per 1,000 population. Dropping to 191 to account for the 12 positions planned to remain vacant, the ratio would drop to 1.91 per 1,000. It is assumed that all departments experience some depletion of officers due to medical leaves, so that would not be considered a factor for comparisons.


The Police Department is the single largest component of the Richmond General Fund budget with a 2003-2004 budget request of $34.8 million of the total $93.1 million. How sacred is this?

Based on the FBI statistics quoted by Chief Samuels and the informal survey found in the Topeka News, Richmond would seem to be a model of frugality.


But maybe not. In January, I attended the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in New Orleans where the best city design, planning and management practices are showcased. I attended a session entitled “Placemaking Through Policing: The Benefits of Smart Growth to Public Safety.” One of the presenters was Police Chief Ken Weldon from El Monte, CA. He provided a stunning account of how community policing and smart growth principles had been combined in El Monte to turn around the community. The centerpiece of his management plan was to assign 64 of the city’s 154 sworn officers each to a small neighborhood. These neighborhoods consisted of only few blocks – not the large “beats” as are used in Richmond “neighborhood policing.” Each neighborhood officer had other city-wide duties but was allocated 10 hours per week to “work” their assigned neighborhood. They were teamed up with public works and abatement staff and were held personally responsible for crime, blight, infrastructure and quality of life in their respective neighborhoods. A successful neighborhood policing assignment was considered an essential rung in the promotional ladder, and officers competed against each other to see who could produce the cleanest and safest neighborhood.


Chief Weldon joked that he once caught an officer pushing an abandoned shopping cart across the street into another officer’s neighborhood to avoid a blight on his otherwise perfect neighborhood appearance record. 


The success of this community policing effort is impressive by itself. But even more impressive are the financial statistics that go along with it.


The El Monte Police Department Budget is $18 million plus another $400,000 for a shared helicopter. El Monte has a population of approximately 120,000 (115,965 in the 2000 census). Richmond has a Police Department Budget (2003-04) of $34.8 million and a population of a little over 100,000 (99,216 in the 2000 census). Richmond Police just absorbed the Abatement Department ( a good move – I may add) with a budget of $2 million, so let’s say the comparative Richmond Police budget is only $32.8 million. That means El Monte has a population of 17% more than Richmond and a Police budget of 45% less! And the number of sworn officers in El Monte is 14% fewer than Richmond, even accounting for the 12 unfilled positions.


Wait, you say! Richmond is a tough town to police. We have poverty, unemployment, and a large minority population. We need a large police department. We just took an $8 million hit for agreeing to “3% at 50” pension plan for public safety employees.


However, Richmond’s median household income is 44% higher than that of El Monte ($44,210 versus $30,795). Richmond’s minority population is 78%, while El Monte’s is 92%. Let’s be clear about this; I’m not saying that minorities are tougher to police; I’m just following the statistical facts that minorities have been challenged by typically higher unemployment rates that some believe are a factor in propensity to commit crimes.


El Monte also has “3% at 50.”


Despite being poorer, larger and more disadvantaged than Richmond, El Monte managed to keep its homicide rate down to 9 in 2002, while Richmond racked up 29. Already in 2003, the Richmond homicide count is 15, a rate that, if sustained, will total 36 by year’s end.


Richmond has a lot of hard working, highly motivated police officers doing a dangerous job. I admire them, and I am thankful for their dedication and professionalism. However, there may be a better way to organize and manage the Police Department and integrate it into city government that could result in a $10 million, or more, savings to Richmond. This money could be reallocated to other essential services, such as repairing streets and other infrastructure. Cities like El Monte can show us the way.


Making such suggestions is political heresy, and I am sure I will be upbraided for even suggesting it. I have the El Monte Police Chief’s video showing how he did it if anyone wants to borrow it. You can reach your own conclusion.