Great Recession x2: Effects of Recession on Crime and Law Enforcement – Forward Observer Shop

Great Recession x2: Effects of Recession on Crime and Law Enforcement

One of my favorite mindless tasks after posting my thoughts about the coming recession and financial crisis (x2) is reading the mindless responses that go something like this: “The Trump economy is so good that unemployment is the lowest in decades. Americans are getting back to work and getting raises, and the economy is so hot that the Fed is having to raise interest rates. You’re crazy if you think we’re going to have another recession.”

Look, I’m not taking anything away from the Trump Bump. This is the kind of economic growth we should have had during the Obama administration following the Great Recession, but we all know why that didn’t happen. (Historically, some of our best growth years are post-recession.) The Trump Bump is great, it’s creating some breathing room, and it probably has a few more gallons in the tank, but the absolute most important thing to remember about our economy is that it works in cycles. We will absolutely have another recession and the only questions are when and how bad? (I cover my thoughts on that here and here.)

I spent part of last week researching some of the specific effects of the 2008 recession on business and society at the local level, and I came across an interesting report published by the Justice Department in 2011 entitled: “The Impact of the Economic Downturn on American Police Agencies”. There are some important lessons learned in this report. (I’ll put the PDF in the Library section for Intelligence and Training subscribers.) Here are a few things I learned.


Nationwide Statistics Overview

  • Recessions notoriously cause budget crunches because of declines in revenue. States and municipalities have often laid off law enforcement officers as a last resort, but they more often enact furloughs, pay freezes, and hiring freezes to lower budgets.
  • From 1986 to 2008, the number of civilian police employees grew by 91 percent, compared to a 41 percent growth in sworn officers. As of 2008, there were twice as many civilian police employees nationally as there were sworn officers. (We call that a “tooth to tail” ratio, as civilian employees provide administrative support to law enforcement operations.) A later report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a decline in total law enforcement employees from 2009 to 2010, and then that number dips lower by 2012. The difference from 2009 to 2012 represents a 1.8 percent decrease in sworn officers nationwide. That may not seem like much, but keep in mind that it’s a national total. Some jurisdictions cut 50% or more of their police force some police forces disappeared entirely.
  • According to one nationwide study, the average police budget cut from 2009 to 2010 was about seven percent. One quarter of those departments cut their budgets by 10 percent or more in 2010, which is on top of previous budget cuts in 2009. One study showed that 40 percent of law enforcement agencies said that budget cuts would post “serious or severe” problems to operations.
  • One study estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 sworn officers were laid off over the course of the recession. Another organization had a more conservative estimate at 10,000.


Effects of recession on law enforcement

  • In 2011, Patterson (NJ) laid off 125 officers, or about 25 percent of their entire police force. The city had already experienced a 15 percent increase in violent crime from 2009 to 2010.
  • From 2009 to 2011, Flint (MI) laid off a third of their police force. On any given Saturday night, the city of over 100,000 residents had six patrolmen on duty.
  • In 2011, Camden (NJ) laid off nearly half of its police force, which represented the lowest level since 1949. Police officers stopped responding to some crimes and instead victims filed police reports over the phone.
  • In 2010, Oakland (CA) police stopped responding to reports of burglaries after cutting its force by 11 percent.
  • By 2011, the city of Sacramento (CA) had cut its narcotics and gang units and Sacramento police stopped responding to burglaries, unless they were in progress.
  • According to one 2010 study, eight percent of police departments were no longer responding to motor vehicle thefts; nine percent of departments were no longer responding to burglar alarms; and 14 percent of departments were no longer responding to non-injury motor vehicle incidents.
  • Another study in 2011 showed that 25 percent of departments experienced cuts to services: 17 percent reported they’d stopped responding to some 911 calls and 26 percent of departments reported a reduction to investigations involving property crimes, fugitives, and non-felony domestic assaults (among other crimes).
  • 68 percent of respondents reported reduced or discontinued police training.

Community policing programs, utilizing civilian employees and volunteers who organized neighborhood watch groups, took reports that would have otherwise been taken by sworn officers, and served as ambassadors between police and the community, were reportedly very effective.

Moving on to crime, this is pretty straightforward. Conventional wisdom says that people who are out of work and in need will resort to extreme measures. But during the Great Depression, for instance, crime plummeted according to the data. That was a different age, right?

More recently, the Arab Spring only happened because high numbers of people were out of work — specifically young people. In fact, high youth unemployment is often a leading indicator of an increase in crime and civil unrest. But during the Great Recession, violent crimes and property crimes actually declined overall. (According to several studies and DOJ data, at least police-reported crime declined overall.) Those years were part of a larger period of decreasing crime, which may explain why crime continued to decrease from 2008 to 2010 and beyond. [source] 1) Crime was already falling, 2) more Americans were sitting at home with less cash, and 3) I think many believed that the government would be able to bail out enough vampire banks to prevent a total economic collapse. (I was in Iraq in 2008/2009, so that’s purely anecdotal and an opinion based from afar.)  Maybe those reasons are why crime rates continued to fall, despite the worsening economic conditions.

Could this upcoming recession be different? Well, yes, it could for a few reasons.

1. Beginning in 2015, violent crimes in the U.S. were back on the rise, but that’s largely due to inner city crime. [source] Homicides increased by 11 percent between 2015 and 2016, and according to some DOJ numbers, decreased by one percent in 2017. But that inner city crime is likely to worsen during the next recession (due to youth unemployment), just as we saw with crime rates in urban areas during the last recession. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that crime will increase in rural and suburban areas. To be sure, there is no appropriate blanket statement on whether or not crime will increase in rural and suburban areas, but I think it largely hinges on two factors: proximity to “spill over” violence and criminality from the inner cities (out-of-area criminals, for instance), and how bad the next recession is. 2008 was bad and I believe that the next recession could be worse, for reasons I’ve covered in several other posts.

2. Today, the national opioid crisis is at epidemic levels. That’s a lot of drug use and drug overdose deaths that didn’t exist in 2008. This map from the Economist shows areas that could be greatly impacted.

3. Lastly, we have a sociopolitical climate far more toxic than we had in 2008. We already see politically-associated violence. There’s every reason to expect that political flames are fired up so that President Trump can get the blame for cyclical recessions and the Fed’s poor monetary policies prior to his election.

Those are three factors that could affect crime rates, and there are several other economic and financial factors that I didn’t mention. This is something I’m keeping an eye on and as we get closer to recession territory, we’ll be providing detailed updates in our National Intelligence Bulletins. If you’d like to follow along, you can subscribe here.


Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper




Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

1 Comment

  1. Every time I see a county map of anything, the following caveat should apply:

    County maps east of Texas are more accurate than those to the west of a north-south line running through El Paso.

    A look at that opioid map is illustrative: that huge spike in southern Nevada doesn’t represent 99% of the giant swath of desert occupied by most of that big red hammer-shaped blob. It actually represents at most a couple of zip codes in Las Vegas itself, and not much beyond them. certainly not 95% of the territory indicated. That goes double for anything in California, and most other states with huge counties and/or sprawling cities, esp. compared to those from further east. For example, twenty miles outside Atlanta is peach and pecan orchards, and pine-covered suburbs. twenty miles outside downtown L.A. is more of L.A., running from the Mexican border to the coastal mountains of Ventura, over 250 uninterrupted miles of people. You’d have to go 70-80 miles from downtown to find a cow, or a cornfield, unless it was shoehorned under powerlines between apartment buildings, and any true rural land is more like 100-150 miles and farther away, with nothing but people and neighborhoods to that point.
    And then, sparsely inhabited desert for hundreds of miles beyond that.

    Anyone, including the government, publishing infographics for the western states on anything other than zip codes (or alternatively, voting precincts), and especially going by counties, whether it be election data, crime data, or economic data, is using semaphore flags to communicate data in the Internet Era. It’s simply outdated and inaccurate.

    And if they went to three dimensions instead of two, and by zip code, nationwide, the spikes around major urban ghettoes would be columns represented as ten feet tall, while surrounding precincts would be nearly flat, and certainly much lower.

    In a major recession, this gets even worse: while most criminals live in poorer areas, they seldom visit the ‘burbs to prey upon others. laziness and familiarity, as far as anyone can tell; plus, they tend to stick out in the richer parts of town, and get noticed faster, which cuts into their business.
    Most crime, borne out by decades of research and reports, is on one’s nearest neighbors, not the rich folks across the tracks, let alone out in the sticks, unless the crooks live there to begin with.

    How applicable that will be in a severe downturn is anyone’s guess, but traditionally, law enforcement in more rural communities nationwide expects a degree of self-sufficiency among that populace, both by inclination and necessity, because given half-hour to hour long response times even to a major crime, by the time the sheriff’s deputies arrive, the victim or the perpetrator has usually bled out, or left nothing but footprints outbound.

    In more financially constrained times, some crimes may never even be called in, the attempted perpetrators just accorded a boot hill burial somewhere on the south forty, or being left out to feed to gators, coyotes, buzzards, and feral hogs, as befits them, and law enforcement will be too busy to note or mourn their missing former clientele.

    That’s how that works out yonder, and ever has.

    In better times, a partner and I manning an ambulance prior to an event in one of the seedier and more notorious urban locales adjacent to downtown Los Angeles heard half a dozen slow gunshots one morning. The two nearby LAPD cops, a few years post-Rodney king never even looked up from their morning papers, sitting 20 feet from us in a marked black-and-white, the very picture of total unconcern. When I questioned them, they allowed that we had, in fact, correctly heard half a dozen gunshots, not car backfires, but they noted that was just a “Rampart Reveille”, and that as long as the gunfire sounded one-sided, they merely assumed someone had been interrupted going in the wrong window, or over the wrong back wall, and how unfortunate for them, but c’est la vie.

    They related that unless there was clearly the sounds of a two- (or more-)sided firefight in progress, or the report of an actual dead or dying body collapsed in a nearby public street, thus requiring them to make some sort of official appearance, it didn’t even merit them putting out an FYI radio report, nor any other response, in broad daylight, on a sunny Saturday morning.

    And this was during the height of economic good times during the Clinton Boom years, after record police expansion and hires.

    One can extrapolate what happens with less officers, when urban gunfire increases in both frequency and results, in time of financial distress, in any major city.

    Doubly so in those locales where the police are seen, rightly or wrongly, as being as much the problem as the solution to it.

    Know your area is always good advice, along with best case/worst case/most likely case contingency planning.

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