The Price of Safety: Law enforcement spending peaks

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Local governments have been cutting their budgets for some years now, whittling away at parks, libraries, City Hall hours and long-term road projects in an effort to avoid tax increases but largely trying to avoid reducing public safety spending.

That’s changed. And that shift is at the center of our new project called The Price of Safety.

The most recent figures from the Minnesota state auditor show that when you adjust for inflation, spending on current operations by the 87 sheriffs departments in the state rose through almost the whole first decade of the century, peaked in 2009 and declined a little in 2010. And if you eliminate the big Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments, the same is true for the state’s hundreds of police departments.

law enforcement spending.JPG Source: Minnesota State Auditor, current police/sheriff expenditures

We won’t get more recent spending numbers until next year some time, but officials with both the League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota Sheriffs Association say the trend of flat-to-down has continued.

Sheriff budgets in 2012 are “very tight, very conservative,” says sheriffs association Executive Director Jim Franklin.

What does this mean for residents? We’re launching today a series of on-air stories and an online project page called The Price of Safety on the pressures and new approaches in local law enforcement these days.

Twenty small-town police departments have disbanded in the past five years to save money. Quite a few other departments, big and small, have lost officers or kept positions open.

In Brainerd, for example, the police force has 23 sworn officers, down four from several years ago. By Police Chief Corky McQuiston’s math, that’s 20 drunk drivers that don’t get arrested in the city of 13,500 residents over the course of a year. He’s also lost most of his crime prevention program that got the police into schools and neighborhoods.

Even when budgets stay flat, rising expenses for technology like a statewide radio system make it harder to keep the number of officers steady, says Anne Finn at the league of cities.

“The cost of doing those jobs is probably at an all time high,” Finn said.

If you’re curious about crime rates, they’ve been dropping across the nation, with one significant exception. Rates of theft in rural counties have been increasing.

And there’s tension in the field. When the city of Foley last year briefly considered hiring a private firm to police its streets, sheriffs and police departments shuddered around the state. “These tensions are driven by budget challenges,” Finn said.

But there are also new approaches — judges riding circuits via TV to save money, police relying on more video cameras, collaborations across city and county lines, new ways to use homeland security money to shore up responses to big emergencies, even drone use.

These come with problems of their own — just say “police drone” and some people will line up to object.

In the end, however, there’s no question that the same economic and political pressure that has moved through local governments here and elsewhere is not leaving public safety as an untouchable.

I invite you to check out the project, which includes some clips of a Twin Cities Public Television docuementary being broadcast at 8 p.m. on Friday, called Redesigning MN: The Margin of Safety.”

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