Visible police officers cut crime

New crime statistics for the San Francisco Police Department and the BART police add support to the common-sense notion that one effective way to cut crime is to visibly position more officers in higher-crime areas. In the dense urban center of San Francisco, this approach led to last autumn’s contentious debate over increasing foot patrols. That outcome was a one-year pilot program beginning in January, where a minimum of two officers from each of the 10 district stations will be required to walk beats for full shifts.

Program results will be independently analyzed by the Public Safety Strategies Group, which is conducting a San Francisco Police Effectiveness Review concluding next July. The report issued this month presented national statistics backing the concept that cities taking a “modern approach” to foot beats, deploying them based on crime data and measurable results, “appear to be making significant differences in crime rates.”

The longest-running example provided was Boston, where foot patrols were increased last December. In March, Boston police began targeting high-crime areas. During the first six months of 2007, homicides decreased by 14 percent, robberies by 12 percent and shootings by 31 percent compared with the same 2006 period.

Attaining such a level of improvement is vital for San Francisco, as The City’s 2007 homicide tally nears a 10-year high of 96, set in 2005. Expanded foot patrols to combat violent crime have become an increasing nationwide trend recently. Washington, D.C., increased foot-patrol officers by 300 earlier this year and Rochester, N.Y., decided to implement foot-beat officers permanently in February.

The foot-patrol legislation introduced by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi became one of The City’s most heated political battles of 2006. A mandate for more street police on foot was passed by the Board of Supervisors, overriding intense opposition from police Chief Heather Fong and the Police Officers Association, not to mention two vetoesby Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Opponents argued that elected officials should not dictate to the police chief and district captains how officers are deployed. Newsom also claimed that more than 300 officers were already on foot patrol during some part of the week. The most ominous warning was that the SFPD does not have enough officers to walk full-shift foot beats without slowing down response time to violent crimes.

Although the objections raise legitimate concerns, The Examiner urges the police administration to give the one-year experiment a fair chance. Those early foot-patrol crime reductions in Boston and elsewhere do seem promising.

As for the latest BART crime report, during the first quarter of fiscal 2007-08, crime rates on BART trains dropped by more than 15 percent — from 2.04 to 1.73 crimes per million riders since last spring. Especially impressive is that the 200 BART police officers accomplished this with 15 vacancies. They even averaged 4.2 minutes per emergency response, barely missing their target of four minutes. We call that visibly good police work.

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