Graduates of a Hartford Police Department Academy class in 2012. Hartford Police Department photo

It is budget season in Hartford, when the City Council reviews the mayor’s proposed budget, questioning the heads of city departments, and then votes to approve or make changes.

Hartford is a poor city, burdened by an unfair tax system and high poverty, so there is always more need than money. But every year since I was elected to the Council in 2019, our police budget has increased. Even in fiscal year 2021, after the Council voted to reduce the police budget, the department ended up spending more than it had the previous year by drawing on other city funds.

Josh Michtom

This matters because the Hartford Police Department is the city’s largest non-education line item, and because Hartford has a very large police force. The median for cities our size (between 100,000 and 200,000 residents) is 14.3 cops per 10,000 residents. Hartford has about 31 officers for every 10,000 residents – more than double the national average. Even compared to much larger cities, which tend to have more police per capita, Hartford stands out: the median for cities with over 500,000 residents is 20.7 officers per 10,000 residents.

We are an outlier by almost any measure: cities with higher crime rates, cities with lower crime rates, cities with much a larger area to patrol, cities at the center of larger metropolitan areas, cities in more remote locations – they all have significantly fewer police than we have. Our police budget last year was almost $49 million. This year, the mayor has proposed to increase it by almost 8%.

It would be fair to ask why our police budget keeps going up. Past years’ increases have not affected the crime rate in our city in any way, and indeed, studies show that crime rates usually follow national trends and are not affected by local spending.

Last year, I asked Hartford Police Chief Jason Thody why he insisted that his department was dramatically understaffed – he had said he wanted to get up to 475 officers from 373. Thody explained in a city budget hearing that his management philosophy was not just to send police when people called, but to have them participate in regular community meetings and “park-and-rides.”

A park-and-ride is when the police, after responding to a call, take some time to stroll around the neighborhood where they are and just chat with the people they meet – not to investigate any crime, but just to be present and build good will. This practice, the chief said, takes more time and increases the personnel needs of the department.

As the chief pointed out last year, some residents like this model of policing. They like to see more police, whether at meetings or strolling the streets. It makes them feel safer, and it makes them like their police department more. What the chief admitted he didn’t know was whether this practice actually reduces crime. So I reached out to Professor Seth Stoughton, at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He is a former police officer and he studies policing in the U.S., and he helped me find some data on this question.

And it turns out that these park-and-walks – which are not actual full-time walk beats, just occasions when officers briefly leave their cars wherever they happen to be – have never been shown to reduce crime. Many studies have shown that simply having more police visible in more places doesn’t reduce crime. And even studies focusing on targeted walk beats, where officers are walking the street for a full shift in small areas identified as suffering from high crime, have had inconclusive results.

In other words, this model, which is the driver for an ever-increasing police budget, doesn’t make us safer. It’s a trick that we play on ourselves: it makes us feel safer, and it makes us appreciate our police department more, but it has no effect on actual crime rates. It is a convenient illusion that keeps the police budget growing and lets politicians claim they are taking action on crime.

Meanwhile, because we are beholden to this model, we find ourselves without money to spend on programs that have actually been proven to reduce crime: our schools are facing a deficit of $22 million, which will deprive our neediest students of paraprofessionals, and the mayor has proposed no increase; our youth recreation programs, even with the increase that the mayor has proposed for their department this year, receive under $4 million annually – less than a tenth of the police budget.

Numerous studies have shown that safe, stable housing prevents crime, but Hartford has one of the highest eviction rates in the nation, no new public housing has been constructed in the city in years, and other forms of assistance for renters, who make up 75% of our population, represent a tiny fraction of what the city spends on policing.

This is not a question of defunding the police. It’s a question of figuring out the smartest way to spend the money we have to get the results our residents demand. And as leaders, we have a responsibility to do the research, to figure out what has been proven to work, and to deliver that to our constituents.

We also have to tell them plainly and honestly when their intuitions are wrong. We must speak frankly to Hartford residents about what the data – and our own police chief – tell us: the size of our police force may make some of us feel safer, but it doesn’t actually make us safer, and it is starving the programs that have actually been proven to reduce crime.

Josh Michtom is a Hartford City Councilman.