(Bloomberg) — Cities from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida, want to rebuild police forces thinned by the recession as they mend frayed community ties that snapped entirely in Missouri, setting off riots and nationwide demonstrations.
Their obligations to retirees stand in the way.
The shortfalls in the 25 largest state and local-government pensions have tripled over the past decade to more than $2 trillion, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Those gaps, which persist even as the stock market reaches record highs, have mayors scrapping plans to increase patrols and reopen precincts as they spend more on retirement instead.
In cities that cut benefits, officers have quit or retired, underscoring the challenge of balancing the promises of the past with the duties of the present.
“The difficulty you run into when you have minimal staffing is there’s less proactive time that an officer can spend on community-oriented policing,” said Brian Marvel, president of the police union in San Diego, where the number of officers has dropped by 200 since 2009. “There are officers out there doing great work every day. They’re just not doing as much of it.”
Simmering tensions between law enforcement and minority communities boiled over last year after a grand jury declined to charge a white officer in the August shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. The November decision sparked riots and looting in the St. Louis region and helped trigger demonstrations around the country against police brutality. President Barack Obama created a task force last month to address what he has called a “gulf of mistrust.”
There are fewer officers around to bridge that gulf. The diminished force in San Diego, which has declined to 1,850 sworn officers from 2,050 five years ago, mirrors a national trend: There were about 390,000 police officers nationwide in 2013, down 14 percent from four years earlier, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most recent figures.
Rebuilding police ranks is crucial to preventing their standing in communities from slipping even more, said George Kelling, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York nonprofit that studies techniques for making police more effective at reducing crime.
“Community policing is very labor intensive, and if you want to get out into the community, you have to have the resources,” said Kelling, who helped develop law-enforcement tactics adopted in New York. “Most cities ought to be viewing policing as an investment rather than a cost.”
Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown found his plans dashed by retirement bills. Brown, a Democrat who in 2011 became the first black mayor of Florida’s most populous city, proposed hiring 80 police officers last year to revive a community-policing unit dismantled by budget cuts. The City Council blocked Brown’s plan to borrow for the hiring spree because Jacksonville’s pension fund shortfall had more than doubled since 2006 to $1.7 billion.
The rising debt meant Jacksonville put more into retirement funds, causing its annual bill to triple since 2008 to about $155 million.
David DeCamp, a spokesman for Brown, said the city is nearing a plan to pay down the pension shortfall, which would free funds for law enforcement.
“We supported investment in prevention and intervention measures on public safety,” DeCamp said in an e-mail.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to add 1,000 officers during his 2011 campaign. Facing a $19.2 billion pension shortfall, the City Council approved a budget for the current year that kept roughly the same number of officers. The city has redeployed desk-bound police to the streets and spent more than $200 million for overtime since 2012, rather than pay benefit costs for rookies.