TULSA, Okla.—It has become a recession mantra: Do more with less.
Now, this heartland city is testing whether that’s possible when it comes to public safety.
Since January, Tulsa has laid off 89 police officers, 11% of its force. That has pushed the city to the forefront of a national movement, spurred by hard times, to revamp long-held policing strategies.
In the crosshairs: community-policing initiatives created over the past two decades, such as having officers work in troubled schools, attend neighborhood-watch meetings and help small-business owners address nuisance crimes like graffiti. Such efforts are popular, and some experts credit them with contributing to the steady drop in the national crime rate since 1991.
But after years of expanding and taking on new duties, police chiefs say they have little choice but to retrench.
“Departments are pulling back to their Alamo—providing patrols and responding to calls for service,” says Jason Stamps, director of professional training at the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety.
Cuts have swept communities from Stockton, Calif., to Naperville, Ill., depleting some departments to 1980s-era staff levels.
Like so many other cities, Tulsa has big budget problems, forcing cuts across the board, including the police department. WSJ’s Stephanie Simon reports on what that means for the cops on the beat.
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In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently vowed not to lay off cops, but tight budgets have slowed hiring so much that the force is down about 12% from 2000, with more attrition expected. Some violent crimes, including homicides, are on the rise. Paul Browne, a deputy police commissioner, says the department has kept a lid on problems by flooding high-crime areas with cops on foot patrol who practice community policing, such as checking in with merchants and pastors. Mr. Browne said the department is committed to such programs but acknowledges that “it’s getting harder” to devote enough resources.
The strain in New York and communities nationwide reminds William Bratton, former police chief in New York and Los Angeles, of the 1970s and 1980s. Then, departments lacked resources to focus on crime prevention and community partnerships, or deal with crimes such as drug dealing and prostitution.
“You’d think we would have learned our lessons from the past,” says Mr. Bratton, who now runs Altegrity Security Consulting. “Policing still requires boots on the ground.”
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Mike Simons for The Wall Street Journal
Police Sgt. Ron Kawano speaks to children on Saturday in Tulsa. Cost-cutting has reduced such community policing.
Citizens and officers in Tulsa are finding out together what fewer cops means.
The police have curtailed community outreach, investigations, undercover work, surveillance, even traffic enforcement, and poured many remaining resources into bread-and-butter street patrols.
The domestic-violence unit lost two officers, leaving four to handle about 5,000 cases a year. The undercover units that used to focus on armed gangs in public housing projects have disbanded. Veteran narcotics detectives are back in cruisers, answering 911 calls.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. believes this is the first step in remaking the department into a lean machine, with fewer high-paid supervisors in desk jobs and more cops on the street fighting bad guys.
Early numbers look good. Reported crime was down about 20% in February and 15% in March from year-earlier levels.
But officers and some citizens fear a vital balance has been upended.
Detective Jason White points to a young mother who was hog-tied, then beaten, in a Valentine’s Day dispute over stolen property. The police identified a 22-year-old female suspect. On March 9, they issued a warrant for her arrest. And there the matter has stalled.
Police know the suspect’s mother’s address, but can’t spare the officers or afford the overtime to conduct stakeouts.
Tulsa, a leafy city of 385,000 set in a crook of the Arkansas River, funds most of its municipal budget through sales taxes, as many cities do. Over time, a greater proportion of that revenue has been directed to public safety.
In the past four decades, the city’s population has jumped 17%—and the police department budget has soared to $87 million from about $4 million, according to a city council report.
The force expanded from 507 sworn officers in 1969 to a high of 829 two years ago, before falling to 702 today. Costs also rose due to union-negotiated salary increases and bonuses. Base pay for a recruit in Tulsa is about $44,000, but officers can take home another $7,000 to $10,000 a year, or more, with overtime and other perks.
The city’s average cost for each full-time police employee, including salary and benefits, is now 9.5 times what it was in the 1969-70 budget. By comparison, per-employee costs in the fire department are 8.5 times greater and costs for all other employees are about 8 times greater.
Officers get bonuses for longevity and fluency in a second language, and collect equipment allowances for serving in special units. Until this year, officers could drive their patrol cars home after work—with Tulsa taxpayers footing the gas bill—even if they lived miles outside the city.
The costs were manageable until last April, when sales-tax revenues plunged and kept on falling. The city budget was in shambles. Police, like other city employees, agreed to take eight unpaid furlough days. Incoming Mayor Bartlett, who took office in December, felt that wasn’t enough.
Mr. Bartlett proposed halting promotions and abolishing a slew of senior positions through attrition. He also asked police to pay a larger share of their pensions. Otherwise, he said, he would be forced to lay off officers.
Firefighters accepted a similar deal. “They felt it was more important at this point to protect the city and keep everyone employed,” says Stan May, president of the firefighters’ union. But police called the mayor’s offer extortion and accused him of union-busting. Members overwhelmingly rejected the deal.
The layoff notices went out within days.
The cuts leave Tulsa with 1.8 sworn officers per 1,000 residents, far below the goal the city council set several years ago of 2.5 per 1,000, which is also the national average.
Mayor Bartlett, who recently appointed a new chief, says he has “total confidence” that the existing force—reassigned to focus more on patrols—will be able “to prevent the criminal element from getting a toehold.”
He hopes to bolster depleted detective units by hiring back some officers in the coming year, but says it isn’t feasible to restore all the community policing.
Rick Westcott, a city councilor who served as a Tulsa police officer in the 1970s, says today’s smaller force can get the job done: “Our citizens are just as safe as they were last year.” The new chief, Chuck Jordan, isn’t so sanguine: Without more cops, he says, he is concerned safety “will start to erode over time.”
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Mike Simons for The Wall Street Journal
The Chicken Hut restaurant has been the scene of violence in Tulsa.
Strain is beginning to show.
Average response time for top-priority 911 calls (generally felonies in progress) was 18% slower this February than the previous year, edging up to eight minutes, according to city data. Response time improved slightly in March, to 7 minutes 30 seconds, 6% slower than last March.
One evening in late March, a 6-year-old girl ran from her home in north Tulsa. The department owns two helicopters with heat-seeking technology to assist in searches, but they have been grounded for lack of funds. So more than three dozen officers fanned out.
They found the girl unharmed. But the three-hour search tied up so many units that 911 dispatchers held a burglary-in-progress call for six minutes before finding a free officer, according to Sgt. Ron Kawano, who reviewed city dispatch logs at the Journal’s request.
A call reporting a drunk man who was threatening to get a shotgun was held for nine minutes before an available patrol could be located, records show. And when three 911 calls in quick succession reported a woman being beaten, it took about 20 minutes for a single officer, with no backup, to reach the house. No arrests were made in any of the incidents.
Arrests citywide were down about 25% in February and March, compared with the previous year. Through the end of March, county prosecutors, who get most of their cases from Tulsa police, had filed 20% fewer felony cases than last year.
If the trend holds, that could indicate the city is safer. But some officers believe arrests are down because the detective corps was cut by nearly 20%, so fewer crimes are being investigated.
The department has also stopped sending detectives to question many suspects in custody. “We are losing confessions. We are going to lose cases,” says Maj. Matt Kirkland, who oversees the detective division.
Some citizens, well aware of police anger at the layoffs, wonder whether some officers may be deliberately slowing down to show public safety has suffered. “This is smoke and mirrors,” said Eddie Evans, a nonprofit administrator.
Others are simply annoyed. Ernest Soto said he has called the police repeatedly to report dangerous drag races on his residential street, but no officer has come to check it out. “It’s irritating,” he said. “We’re paying for this. We should be getting a response.”
Then there are citizens who no longer feel safe.
Marlena Greene, night manager at a low-budget hotel, used to count on a team of five undercover street-crimes cops to bust hookers and drug dealers outside her office. They broke up many a hotel-room meth lab. Ms. Greene had all their cell-phone numbers.
“I now have nobody to call,” Ms. Greene said. She once tried 911, but said the cruisers arrived too late and without an element of surprise.
Chief Jordan is trying to minimize the impact of such cuts by policing more efficiently. He analyzed call and crime patterns and is shuffling shifts accordingly. By summer, he plans to assign all patrol officers dedicated beats—and build in time for them to get to know local residents—instead of deploying them across a 20-square-mile sector.
He’s also pushing to adopt time-saving technology, such as a hand-held wireless device for printing traffic tickets. He’s asking citizens to report some crimes online instead of taking up an officer’s time. He’s questioning other customs. Responding to burglar alarms eats up hundreds of hours of officer time each week, and at least 98% are false alarms. Is that worth it? Chief Jordan says no.
The true test in Tulsa will likely come this summer. The city has closed several swimming pools and recreation centers to save money. Strapped nonprofit groups have cut sports and mentoring programs. Some residents fear that will leave restless teens with little to do but make trouble. “In my mind, that’s a recipe for disaster,” Councilor Jack Henderson said.
One fear: a repeat of the Chicken Hut incident.
At 3 a.m. on Feb. 28, a young man was shot multiple times outside Chicken Hut, a fast-food joint in north Tulsa. Three officers arrived in minutes but were outnumbered by a hostile crowd of perhaps 150 people. Some were so intent on getting their chicken, they stepped over the wounded man, who eventually died, to reach the take-out window.
Sgt. Mike Huff, a veteran homicide detective, said it took a half-hour to get enough officers there to control the crowd. By then, some witnesses had left. Police haven’t identified a suspect.
Mayor Bartlett says if trouble brews this summer, Tulsa can contract with the non-unionized county sheriff’s department to help, at far lower cost than hiring more full-time cops. Mr. Bartlett also aims to push more of the existing force into beat patrols by hiring lower-paid civilians to handle chores like maintaining records. Citizens won’t care, he says. “They just want to be safe.”
The proposal infuriates police, who see the plan as another stab at union busting, an accusation Mr. Bartlett denies.
The debate will come to a head next month when the city council sets a budget for next fiscal year. Officers are in no mood to reconsider wage or benefit cuts. They say they’re hoping a public outcry will force the council to bring more officers on board.
But no outcry has materialized. Everyone these days is getting by with less. The police should be able to do it, too, said Twan Jones, a 38-year-old community activist. “They have people being paid nice salaries to figure it out.”
Tulsa Officer Phil Evans, president of the police union, finds such rhetoric disorienting. “It used to be that cities were proud of their police department,” he said. “Now it’s all about the bottom line.”
Write to Stephanie Simon at email@example.com