Cops Leave No (Property) Crime Behind

Two years ago, a member of the UCSD Police Department contacted the Guardian with an outrageous claim: The department’s top officers, upset with the workload caused by an exploding number of drunk-driving arrests, had told junior officers to make no more “purposeful” DUI stops on the streets around the campus, or face a reprimand. When several officers continued to stop drunk drivers (the source particularly mentioned Officer John Smart), they were sanctioned.

For the lowly freshman staff writer I was at the time, it was as exciting a story as one could get. During the following three weeks, I proceeded with half a dozen interviews — some on the record, some off, some with regular officers, some with official department spokespeople. At the end, however, we were never able to either fully confirm or fully deny the allegations (largely because few officers were comfortable enough to speak frankly), and no story ever ran.

Two years later, that story provides an important backdrop for the controversy surrounding the department’s pay-for-arrest scandal. Under a plan proposed by one of the department’s lieutenants, but never implemented, each officer was promised a $10 gift certificate for arresting suspects for car theft and several other categories of property crimes. Individual squads and the entire department were also promised parties for hitting specific arrest targets.

What is similar between the two strange policies are the types of crimes chosen as the primary focus. By either using the carrot (gift certificates and parties) or the stick (threat of a reprimand), both policies were largely designed to make officers prioritize property crimes over other types of often dangerous crimes.

There was, and still is, good reason for the department to have been worried about things like bike and car theft. Between 2001 and 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, the number of property crime offenses at UCSD rose by an astounding 45 percent, compared to a 9 percent drop for the University of California as a whole in the same period. In 2004, the campus racked up 646 property violations, almost 100 more than UC San Francisco, though the former is located in a major metropolitan area.

Given that the UCSD department has the lowest number of officers per thousand people on campus in the system — just 0.7 officers per thousand — it should come as no surprise that a growth in a certain category of crimes would have caused the department to change its priorities and divert its resources, instead of simply increasing both.

The other explanation for both policies addresses the perverse incentives created by various annual reporting regimes. Ironically, when UCSD officers make a drunk-driving arrest, the campus’ crime rate goes up; the university’s annual crime report does not include a category for “lives saved,” and instead adds a tally for each DUI to “other offenses.” If an officer arrests a drunk driver, the crime rate increases, and the university looks bad, encouraging the police to look the other way. (By comparison, property-crime data is based on reported offenses, not arrests.)

The other important document, known as the Clery Report, does not emphasize DUIs at all. Passed in response to the murder of a girl named Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University, the federal Clery Act requires universities to report their crime numbers to the Department of Education or face civil fines and the possibility of their students losing access to federal financial aid. Though the Clery Report includes a broad category for drug- and alcohol-related violations (lumped together with illegal weapons possessions), it places particular focus on thefts, burglary and sexual assault.

Given these reporting rules, and the incentives they create, it should come as no surprise that the police department would tell its officers to focus on the crime categories that prove most embarrassing for the university. The department can focus on drunk drivers and see the crime rate go up, or it can tell the officers to look for thieves (many of whom are repeat offenders) with the possibility of arresting a serial bike thief and thus preventing further thefts. What rational administrator would choose the former?

As controversial as the most recent pay proposal may have seemed, it was simply a response to institutional incentives. Unless the police department gets more money to hire more officers, or the way crimes are reported changes, it will simply be one of many similarly silly responses to the rising number of property offenses.