Joe Mathews: California’s biggest police problem is not enough officers

Protesters push back against police officers in downtown Oakland last December. Joe Mathews says the root cause of police problems is a lack of officers in departments such as Oakland’s.
Protesters push back against police officers in downtown Oakland last December. Joe Mathews says the root cause of police problems is a lack of officers in departments such as Oakland’s. Bay Area News Group

You wouldn’t know it by watching all the news about police-community conflict, or tracking all the state legislation on the use of force by law enforcement. But California’s biggest policing problem remains the same: There isn’t enough of it.

Issues of police misconduct are serious, as made plain by recent stories including the racist police texts in San Francisco and the shooting of an unarmed homeless man in Los Angeles.

But underlying these issues is the fact that California lacks the manpower necessary for the smart, effective policing of our diverse, complicated communities.

California has long been distinguished by its sparse policing, with small police departments unable to keep pace with population growth in vast cities. But in recent years, police shortages around the state have become significantly worse.

In San Diego, the police department has 300 fewer officers than a decade ago. Fresno is down more than 100 officers in the same period. Los Angeles reached its goal of 10,000 officers two years ago, but now is struggling to hire enough qualified people to replace departing officers.

In Oakland, with its notoriously high robbery rates, the police force has lost nearly a quarter of its sworn officers since 2009. San Jose, a sprawling city of 1 million people, has fewer than 1,000 officers; projections show the number dropping below 900 next year. (The ranks of Sacramento police would top 1,000 for the first time since the recession under the proposed 2015-16 budget.)

Such declines contribute to slower response times and departments’ inability to investigate crimes such as burglary. Cops also have less time to develop deep relationships within the neighborhoods they are supposed to protect.

Nearly as many reasons are given for this decline as there are cops: tight budgets, a surge in retirements of baby boomer officers, the difficulty of finding qualified candidates, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that lured away military personnel who might have been cops, and the high salaries and generous benefits that make employing police expensive.

Of course, some might ask: With the historic decline in crime, who needs police?

That question is answered powerfully by Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter, in her new book “Ghettoside.” In a different spin on “Black Lives Matter,” Leovy shows how we have too little enforcement of the law in some places. The failure to catch and punish murderers creates “impunity” that produces more violence.

There is a strong connection, she writes, between this failure and the complaints about police abuses. “The perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter,” she writes. “Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”

In this context, the 20-plus proposals in the Legislature to put more restrictions on cops – body cameras, changes in prosecution of deadly-force cases and the like – amount to treating symptoms of the policing disease, not its root causes. Far more urgent is the challenging work of rebuilding California’s police departments so we have enough good cops on the beat, with the time and resources to focus on the fundamental work of preventing violence.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.