Published Tuesday, Sep. 26, 2006, in Philadelphia Inquirer

Hiring more police is the real answer

By John R. Lott, Jr.

is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" and "The Bias Against Guns"

Among the 10 largest cities, Philadelphia now has the dubious distinction of surpassing perennial leader Chicago in terms of murder and violent crime, becoming number one in both categories. Murder and violent crime rates may be going down this year in the rest of Pennsylvania, but Philadelphia's numbers are still going up.

Philadelphians are understandably scared. But city officials seem only to want to blame others. Stepping into the breach, the state legislature will hold an unusual special session today to go through a long list of proposals. Democrats see the solution as primarily more gun control, such as a one-gun-a-month purchase limit, a state ban on so-called assault weapons, as well as allowing Philadelphia to pass its own gun-control laws. On the other side of the spectrum, House Speaker John Perzel (R., Phila.) wants more police, with the state picking up half the cost of any new hires.

So why are Philadelphia's crime rates increasing so dramatically? To put it bluntly, the city isn't doing a very good job at law enforcement. While the arrest rate for violent crimes such as murder has fallen across the state, arrest rates have plummeted in Philadelphia. Criminals are simply not being caught. The drop has been stunning. While 81 percent of murderers were arrested in 2000, just 61 percent were arrested in 2005. And the rate has continued falling this year.

Over the next four years, Perzel's police program, if enacted, could help fund as many as 1,345 officers in Philadelphia - a 20 percent increase from today. Up to 10,000 police could be hired statewide. Hiring more police is one proven way to reverse much of the recent decline in arrest rates, though one must be careful to ensure that the money isn't diverted by localities into other activities. Perzel also seems serious about avoiding many problems that plagued President Clinton's police program, where buying items such as computers were counted as hiring police or the money was spent planting trees or doing other non-police work.

Perzel has offered to fund his program by not filing vacant "nonessential" positions in the legislature and executive branch, and he will let local governments use federal grants to cover the costs that the state doesn't. But recently, Gov. Rendell strongly and publicly attacked Perzel's proposal. Rendell opposes Perzel's budget cuts. He argued that the state could not afford to cover half of the cost of hiring new police and that "most counties and cities will not be able to use it." Rendell is willing to spend only 4 percent as much on new law enforcement as Perzel.

Yet, Rendell's most preferred solution - more gun control - isn't without cost. If police and courts are forced to spend more time and resources enforcing gun-control laws, they are less able to go after violent crimes. It is essentially an unfunded mandate on local police across the state.

It is also pretty hard to see any benefit from gun control. A National Academy of Sciences panel set up under the Clinton administration analyzed hundreds of journal articles, books, government publications, and some of its own work, but could not identify a single gun-control regulation that reduced violent crime, suicide or accidents. And that included all of the gun regulations being put forward now.

As to the assault weapons ban, even research funded by the Clinton administration didn't find that it reduced violent crime. The reason for these findings is simple: There is nothing unique about the guns that were banned under the law. Though the phrase "assault weapon" conjures up images of the rapid-fire machine guns used by the military, in fact the weapons covered by the ban functioned the same as any semiautomatic hunting rifle; they fire the exact same bullets with the exact same rapidity and produce the exact same damage as hunting rifles.

Before the federal assault-weapons ban expired, even some national gun control groups said it didn't matter. A spokesperson for the Violence Policy Center said, "If the existing assault weapons ban expires, I personally do not believe it will make one whit of difference one way or another in terms of our objective, which is reducing death and injury and getting a particularly lethal class of firearms off the streets. So if it doesn't pass, it doesn't pass."

Nor is there any academic research by criminologists or economists finding that one-gun-a-month rules produced any reduction in crime in one's own state, let alone a neighboring state.

If there were was some evidence that something like assault-weapons bans or one-a-month rules reduced crime, there might be some debate. But taking police away from what works is not the way to make Philadelphia safer.

Contact John R. Lott Jr. at johnrlott@aol.com.


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