The Magazine

Law and Disorder

The case for a police surge.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By WILLIAM J. STUNTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

We live in strange times. The federal budget deficit is higher than at any time since World War II as a percentage of GDP, yet the president and Congress are not in budget-cutting mode. Rather, they are seeking to make that deficit even larger by spending sums that, before now, seemed beyond the realm of possibility. The more obscene the amounts, the better. John Maynard Keynes's famous suggestion--pay some workers to dig ditches and others to fill them up--hasn't made it into any stimulus package, yet. But the night is still young, and politicians are still exercising their imaginations.

Sadly, in the face of record-breaking federal spending, one uncommonly good spending idea has gotten short shrift: Use federal budget dollars to pay for more cops on high-crime city streets. A modest version of that idea--$8.8 billion in federal money over six years--was enacted as part of the 1994 crime bill, and it contributed to the second-biggest crime drop of the last century.

Given that track record and the sheer magnitude of the stimulus spending, one might think that now is the time for an immodest version of the idea: say, $5 billion a year for four or five years. One would be wrong. The House stimulus package included one-shot spending of between $3 billion and $4 billion for urban policing, depending on how one counts. The Senate's more moderate proposal pared that sum down to $1 billion and change--less than "real money" by the Dirksen standard. At that level of funding, the stimulus package would pay for a mere 10,000-15,000 officers for one year only. That number is too small--America has 650,000 local police officers to patrol America's streets; 10,000 more is a drop in the bucket--and too short-term. If the recession lasts more than a year, the new officers will be out of jobs before they have time to do their productive work.

House and Senate alike are making a serious error. For $5 billion per year--five years' funding would be about 3 percent of the stimulus package--lawmakers could put another 50,000 cops on city streets. Doing so would likely both reduce crime and reduce the nation's swollen prison population--a rare combination--and would also help the economy in poor city neighborhoods by making investments in those neighborhoods safer. This is one policy that conservatives and liberals alike could support. If the Obama administration is looking for opportunities for bipartisanship, it should look hard at urban policing.


The case for more police spending begins in another part of the world, with another battle against mayhem. Not long ago, the Iraq war seemed a lost cause. Two decisions proved it wasn't. First, General David Petraeus changed tactics: Buy off or coopt all enemy fighters who are susceptible to such overtures, and bring violence to bear only on the irreconcilables. Give priority to protecting the population. Second, President Bush embraced the new approach and backed it up by sending another 30,000 soldiers to the front. Once an unattainable goal, victory in Iraq is now in sight.

Taken together, those two decisions were revolutionary. For 35 years, America's military had been looking for ways to avoid another Vietnam: a long war with heavy casualties that steadily lost public support. So, after Vietnam, military technology emphasized efficient violence: weapons systems that could take out targets more precisely and from longer distances with fewer soldiers. Military doctrine moved in a similar direction, emphasizing speed and surprise--"shock and awe"--in order to overpower enemies quickly. Both technology and doctrine aimed to get more bang for the buck, more and better-targeted violence with fewer soldiers.

The Iraq surge followed the opposite strategy: The goal was to get less bang for the buck, to use more soldiers to produce less violence. It worked. Post-Saddam Iraq is not, it turns out, ungovernable. All it needed was what any ruler needs in order to rule crime-ridden territory: armed men in uniform standing guard on violent street corners, in numbers enough to reassure local residents that they can walk the streets in peace.

That sounds like--and is--a job for a well-trained, well-funded force. The war in Iraq bears more than a passing resemblance to the battle against violent street gangs in the roughest parts of American cities. The tactics Petraeus used to win that war are eerily similar to the tactics the best police chiefs use to rein in gang violence. But better tactics alone cannot do the job. In Boston as in Baghdad, those tactics work only if the police forces that use them have enough personnel: lots of police boots on the most violent ground.