Crime May be Down, but Police Chiefs Still Worry about Officer Safety

By Kevin Morison

Approximately 175 police chiefs, sheriffs, mayors, law enforcement policymakers and practitioners from across the country came together in Washington, DC, yesterday to discuss the state of crime in the U.S. and to help map out a crime-fighting agenda for the future. Organized by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the National Violent Crime Summit covered a wide range of topics, including some issues related to law enforcement officer safety.

Executive Director Chuck Wexler discussed the results of PERF’s analysis of preliminary crime statistics in approximately 200 jurisdictions. In general, the study showed that violent crime appeared to decline during the first half of 2008, although Mr. Wexler noted that the statistics were collected before the full impact of the current financial crisis was felt.

Even though overall crime may be down, a number of chiefs cited violence against their officers as a continuing concern. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey reported that assaults against his officers are up 18 percent this year and that four officers have been killed violently over the past 12 months, including one officer shot with a high-powered SKS rifle.

Miami Police Chief John Timoney, who also serves as PERF’s president, cited the growing threat of assault weapons in south Florida. He said that 22 percent of the murders in his city last year were committed with AK-47s and that two south Florida law enforcement officers were killed with assault rifles last year. Similarly, Police Superintendent Warren Riley said 15 percent of the homicides committed in New Orleans now involve assault weapons, and he, too, worries about the impact on officer safety of so many high-powered weapons on the streets.

Several chiefs sounded a two-pronged alarm about the current financial crisis. On the one hand, they worry that as more people lose their jobs, both property and violent crime may rise. At the same time, tight municipal budgets could force some departments to cut the number of sworn officers, thus exposing safety concerns for their personnel.

As part of its survey of American cities, PERF asked police executives to identify their top programmatic and funding priorities for the next administration in Washington. Yesterday’s summit also included presentations by the two major Presidential campaigns concerning their views on crime control. George Terwilliger, deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, represented the campaign of Senator John McCain. Eric Holder, deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, represented the campaign of Senator Barack Obama.

Later this year, PERF plans to publish a report on the National Violent Crime Summit, part of its 2008 Critical Issues in Policing Series, which is supported by Motorola. Based in Washington, DC, PERF is one of the founding board member organizations of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.