More Money, Cops, and Crime: Policing in Charlotte

If there is an article of political faith shared by elected officials from left to right and from city councils to the Oval Office, it is that public dollars should not be squandered on wasteful, ineffective government programs — with one seeming exception: law enforcement.

Why should that be? Let’s ask of the police department the same question we ask of every other government agency: Does it work?

Our inquiry should begin by identifying the metrics by which to judge law enforcement’s performance.

It seems the public wants the cops to do two things: solve crime and prevent crime. 

How well does Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department achieve these tasks?

We can begin our assessment of CMPD by looking at its mission statement: “The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will build problem-solving partnerships with our citizens to prevent the next crime and enhance the quality of life throughout our community, always treating people with fairness and respect.”

CMPD doesn’t even claim that part of its work is to solve crime, one of the two primary jobs that justifies its very existence.

CMPD cops in riot gear fired tear gas and other chemical weapons at protesters last summer as demonstrators wound through uptown in response to the murder of George Floyd by four police officers. The cops excel at social control, but can they solve and prevent crime? The data suggests not.

Reputational self-interest offers the likely explanation for this omission. If CMPD were to say that its mission includes solving crime, it would be an easy task to see how well (or poorly) the department performs its job. We could just tally up the number of crimes committed every year and then ask what share went unsolved.

Our inquiry need not be bound, of course, by CMPD’s self-serving mission statement. We, as members of the community, can reasonably require that in exchange for the roughly $2.8 billion poured into CMPD since 2010, the department not only “prevent the next crime,” but solve the last one.

It turns out Charlotte cops aren’t very good at solving crime.

Between 2010 and 2017 (the latest year for which state data is available), CMPD annually cleared between 68% and 96% of murders, which is by far the department’s most successful performance benchmark: Most murders, and some years nearly all murders, are cleared. (A crime is generally considered “cleared” when the cops arrest someone for, and charge them with, the crime.)

Over the same period, the department annually cleared between 34% and 61% of rapes; between 33% and 38% of robberies; and between 48% and 63% of aggravated assaults. Put differently, a majority of violent crimes usually went uncleared every year.

The annual clearance rates for murder and robbery stayed mostly flat during this period, while the annual clearance rates for rape and aggravated assault declined.

As for property crimes, CMPD rarely clears them.

Again between 2010 and 2017, the department annually cleared between 11% and 16% of burglaries; between 17% and 25% of larcenies; and between 11% and 18% of motor vehicle thefts.

In other words, the overwhelming majority of property crimes went uncleared. And the annual clearance rate in recent years was mostly flat for property crimes.

By our first metric — solving crime — CMPD is mostly a failure. (The department’s clearance rates are generally consistent with nationwide clearance rates, but this only speaks to the fact that law enforcement across the country fails to achieve one of the two basic tasks the public thinks it performs. Failure is widespread and seemingly systemic.)

What about “preventing the next crime,” the second of our metrics? How does CMPD fare on that front?

Changes in county crime rates were uninspiring over the last ten years.

(A caveat: These crime rates are for all of Mecklenburg County, not just territory within CMPD’s jurisdiction. While the vast majority of crime in Mecklenburg County occurs within the department’s jurisdiction, some crime occurs outside of it. This discrepancy redounds to CMPD’s benefit in this analysis because those areas outside its jurisdiction — Pineville, Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson — have lower crime rates than the areas within CMPD’s jurisdiction. These countywide statistics, therefore, are lower than the rates within CMPD’s jurisdiction.)

Between 2010 and 2019, the overall crime rate in Mecklenburg County went from 4,980 crimes per 100,000 residents to 4,554 crimes per 100,000 residents, a decrease of roughly 9%. (This is the crime rate based on so-called “index crimes”: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson.)

Over this ten-year period, the crime rate dipped to a low of 4,036 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2014 and has since increased to roughly the same level as in 2011: In 2011, the crime rate was 4,514 per 100,000 residents, while in 2019 the rate was 4,554 per 100,000 residents.

The lower overall crime rate in 2019 as compared to 2010 was due to a decrease in property crime rates. Between 2010 and 2019, the property crime rate declined from 4,403 crimes per 100,000 residents to 3,866 per 100,000 residents, a decrease of approximately 12%.

But, as with the overall crime rate, property crime in 2019 was more or less what it was in 2011: The rate was 3,633 crimes per 100,000 in 2019 and 3,965 per 100,000 residents in 2011. As with the overall crime rate, there was a significant decline from 2010 to 2011, followed by a bouncing around — sometimes rising, sometimes falling — that resulted in little change in rates from 2011 to 2019.

In essence, we are today where we were in 2011, and we’re worse off than we were in some early years of the 2010s.

The violent crime rate shot up during the period 2010 to 2019. It rose from 578 violent crimes per 100,000 residents to 688 per 100,000 residents, an increase of nearly 20%. 

In summary, overall crime rates and property crime rates are largely unchanged since 2011, while violent crime rates are significantly higher. And all crime rates — overall, property, and violent — are higher than they were in the mid-2010s.

It seems, then, that when it comes to our second metric — “preventing the next crime” — CMPD is, at best, treading water and, at worst, losing ground.

Mecklenburg County also fares relatively poorly when compared to other large North Carolina counties. Of the 10 largest counties by population, Mecklenburg was virtually tied with Durham and Forsyth counties for highest overall crime rates in 2019: Mecklenburg was at 4,554 per 100,000 residents, while Durham was at 4,565 per 100,000 residents and Forsyth was at 4,552 per 100,000 residents.

The other seven most-populous counties had overall crime rates in 2019 ranging from 1,902 per 100,000 residents in Wake to 4,152 per 100,000 residents in Cumberland.

Violent crimes rates in Cumberland (787 per 100,000 residents), Forsyth (766 per 100,000 residents), and Durham (704 per 100,000 residents) were higher than in Mecklenburg (688 per 100,000 residents) in 2019. The violent crime rate ranged in the other most-populous counties from 250 per 100,000 residents in Wake to 652 per 100,000 residents in Guilford.

None of the other most-populous counties had a higher property crime rate than Mecklenburg in 2019 (3,866 per 100,000 residents). Durham came close (3,861 per 100,000 residents), as did Forsyth (3,786 per 100,000 residents). The other counties’ rates ranged from 1,652 per 100,000 residents in Wake to 3,366 per 100,000 residents in Cumberland.

During CMPD’s ten-year period of stagnation (or worse) in “preventing the next crime” during the 2010s, funding for the department steadily climbed.

In 2010, CMPD’s budget totaled $185.7 million. City Council allocated $290.2 million to CMPD for the current fiscal year, an increase of more than 56% from a decade ago. (A caveat: During roughly the same time, from 2010 to 2019, Charlotte’s population rose about 21%, from 731,424 to 885,708 residents. Another caveat: Comparing these figures does not account for inflation. And a third caveat: The current fiscal year’s budget excludes about $5 million in expenses associated with support services that were moved out of the CMPD budget this year and into other departments’ budgets. If those expenses hadn’t moved, CMPD’s current budget would be about $295.4 million.)

Over roughly the same time, from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2021, the number of sworn officers in CMPD rose about 23%, from 1,640 to 2,025, largely tracking the city’s growth.

So what story does the data tell?

CMPD has more officers and more money than it did a decade ago, but it’s no better at solving or preventing crime. By some measures, it’s worse. And independent of any improvement or deterioration in the department’s performance, the overall quality of CMPD’s work in achieving its core missions of solving and preventing crime is mediocre, at best, and abysmal, at worst.

As with any set of statistics, the framing of the data can influence the story the numbers tell, but this does not detract from the main point: There is no obvious relationship between the size of CMPD (measured both in manpower and money) and crime-fighting (measured in crimes solved or prevented).

There’s nothing anomalous about the relationship between cops and crime in Charlotte: Nationwide studies have found no relationship between crime rates and police funding and have found that throwing more money at law enforcement has little, if any, effect on crime rates.

The myth of policing in America — that of local heroes stopping crime in its tracks and bringing to justice those who commit offenses against the public — appears to be just that, a myth.

And so we return to the question that ought to animate every public official, and does, in fact, animate them when government agencies other than law enforcement come asking for funds: Is money spent on this program wise or wasteful?

There is some recognition among Charlotte officials that policing in its current form doesn’t work to prevent crime and may not be a good use of tax dollars.

This helps explain the city’s recent interest in “violence interrupters” and the decision to earmark $1 million for non-profits that work to curb violence. It also explains the modest JumpStart micro-grant program designed to fund community organizations dedicated to resolving conflict and reducing violence.

But despite the city’s claim that these recent efforts represent a decision to adopt a “public health approach” to reducing violent crime, these programs in their current form are more cosmetic than anything. After all, what is $1 million spread over multiple non-profit organizations, $10,000 for a “violence interrupters” pilot program, and a handful of “micro-grants” compared to a police department budget of $290 million this fiscal year?

It’s not clear we currently possess all the information necessary to assess CMPD’s effectiveness. Some in the community, such as Safe Coalition NC, have pushed in recent years for an audit of the department that might generate the sort of data needed to more definitively answer this query, but elected officials, city bureaucrats, and CMPD leadership have rejected the organization’s calls for such a review.

Instead of relying on data, our elected officials continue to believe in policing as a matter of faith, surely to the satisfaction of a police department interested in protecting its bureaucratic and institutional prerogatives and power.

Crime and budget data for the last decade should, at a minimum, call into question any blind faith in policing. The data make clear that the efficacy and efficiency of policing is not self-evident, but something that requires affirmative demonstration.

The burden should be on CMPD to show its value to the elected officials who hold the purse strings on behalf of taxpayers. And those elected officials ought not to simply assume that continuing to throw hundreds of millions of dollars a year at law enforcement makes good, prudent fiscal sense.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

2 replies on “More Money, Cops, and Crime: Policing in Charlotte”

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