As far as I can tell, police departments employ two main strategies when they’re under pressure to cut crime fast. In strategy no. 1, they flood crime zones with special police units that muscle criminals and contraband off the streets. In strategy no. 2, they simply downgrade crimes, or make it more difficult for citizens to report them.
The Dallas police department chose the latter strategy last year when it announced that police officers would no longer respond in person to shoplifting incidents involving items worth $50 or less. Instead, victimized merchants were instructed to print a form off the DPD website, fill it out, and put it in the mail. According to the Dallas Morning News, the new process has been a huge hassle for merchants. “Retailers overwhelmingly described a time-consuming process with onerous paperwork requirements,” reported Tanya Eiserer and Steve Thompson.
As a result, more and more small thefts are simply going unreported. “Minor shoplifting offenses averaged about 10 a day before the policy,” write Eiserer and Thompson. “Immediately afterward, that fell to fewer than three a day.” The paper estimates that there’s been a 75 percent drop in petty shoplifing reports over the past year. Hooray, crime is tumbling!
Dallas Police Chief David Brown told the Morning News that this strategy wasn’t a matter of trickery. Rather, it was about resource prioritization—“not responding to Class C shoplifting calls freed up the equivalent of nine officers,” he explained. (There are more than 3,400 officers on the force.)
I don’t have a big problem with this. Police departments have to make tough choices, and this is an example of a choice that’s entirely defensible given the realities of the municipal budget.
That being said, the Dallas police should not be allowed to claim the resulting statistics as some huge crime-fighting victory. The Morning News reports that the decision to ignore petty shoplifting accounts for one-third of Dallas’ 11 percent drop in total reported crime over the last year. This just goes to show that you need to be really, really careful when you’re talking about crime statistics, and what they mean. (The Morning News has done a consistently good job contextualizing these statistics.)
It also further validates my belief that, when it comes to police departments, qualitative assessments are more valuable than quantitative ones. A huge drop in crime doesn’t necessarily mean that the police are being any more effective; it could just mean crimes are being downgraded or ignored. As this Dallas situation shows, “less crime getting reported” is not the same thing as “less crime.”