Tuesday, April 6, 2010

can you put a price on safety?

Deciding whether or not to publicly fund a good or services requires thinking through several questions, including:
• Is the use available to everyone?
• Does it provide safety and public health?
• Does it provide for the general welfare of American citizens in society?

When talking about police security, many of the answers to the above questions are an obvious yes. But what happens when the cost of providing the public service becomes increasingly more expensive, thus draining more and more of an already strained state budget? And do we continue spending money to provide this service when only a specific proportion of the population directly sees the benefit?

We have a great recent example of this duality with the reappointment of Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan in March of 2010. Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan was reappointed for a three year term after an extremely close vote by the Minneapolis City Council; much of his criticism was due to the fact that the Minneapolis Police Department has gone over budget every year except one under Dolan’s leadership. In 2009, the Minneapolis Police Department went over budget by $4 million.

However, Dolan is commended for his actions in significantly reducing crime throughout Minneapolis, especially on the North side. The three north side council members stressed the importance of having the presence of police consistently in their neighborhoods as it provides a sense of security for the residents of the neighborhood. This sense of security is not as needed in neighborhoods located in southwest Minneapolis and hence, residents in southwest Minneapolis do not prioritize police presence as highly on their personal preferences as residents in north Minneapolis do.

Another great example of a significant reduction of crime at the expense of public funds is the Franklin Avenue corridor. The Franklin Avenue corridor in the 1990s was a battlefield of drug deals; anyone, including people from the suburbs, who needed a fix came to Franklin Avenue because they knew they could get their stuff. Thanks to the efforts of Teresa Carr and the Great Neighborhood Development Corporation, formerly known as the American Indian Neighborhood Development Corporation, and her partnership with the Minneapolis Police Department, the Franklin Avenue corridor has been completely revitalized. The partnership with the Minneapolis Police Department included creating a place where on-duty police officers could stop and check in with the base department while still staying in the neighborhood. Equipment was bought and placed in a leased space so that police officers could check in and continue to provide the neighborhood with the needed security.

However, while this effort completely revitalized the neighborhood, it was also a costly expenditure as the police space on Franklin Avenue is currently not occupied. After the significant decrease in crime, there has been a correlating decrease in continued police presence. Minneapolis police officers still patrol the area, but do not have a 24 hour "eyes on the street" presence as they did previously.

How do we compromise spending public dollars on a service that is primarily utilized by a specific proportion of the population? It is clearly evident that residents in high crime neighborhoods benefit the most from police presence and hence, are strong supporters of continuing this service, despite the fact that it may cost more than what was originally budgeted for. The argument then turns to residents in low crime neighborhoods: should they be paying more for a public service that they do not use that often and do not see the benefit of?

With the example of police presence in neighborhoods to prevent crime and increase safety, it is something that public funds will always be spent on. Despite the fact that expenditures may be over budget in certain years and people arguing that there is an inequality between the money paid and the benefit received, the police force will always be funded. I guess you can put a price on safety.

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