NEWTOWN, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012. Twenty children are shot dead in an elementary school. The NRA's suggestion that all schools have armed security officers is ridiculed.
Tulsa, Jan. 7, 2013. Four women (including twin sisters) are shot dead in an apartment complex. The owner of the complex responds with a pledge to essentially do what the NRA suggested for schools — put security officers at the entry.
Geography, the death toll and the age of the victims place these two crime scenes a world apart. What they have in common — as do all crime scenes — is the response by the public employees known as police officers. They are here to serve and protect but also to deal with the heartbreak that every murder brings.
Oklahoma City has had a lot of murder-related heartache recently, with a near record 99 homicides on the books for 2012. In an age when security makes it tough to board an airplane or enter a government building, when background checks are required for multiple activities and when cameras record our every move away from home, police officers still can't prevent crimes such as the Newtown or Tulsa murders.
What they can do is reduce crime with increased patrols, more visibility and more intervention at places (such as the apartment complex) where 911 calls come all too frequently. But to do these things requires manpower. And manpower costs a lot of money.
Oklahoma City faces a decision on how many more officers it needs, how much it will cost and how taxpayers will pay for it. Oklahoma County is grappling with its own safety and security issue — determining the future of a troubled jail. A countywide sales tax vote for a new justice complex is around the corner, perhaps just ahead of a de facto federal takeover of the jail.
Newtown and the Tulsa shootings remind us not only of the need for greater security but also the cost of keeping people safe. John George, president of the Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police, says the city needs 2.47 officers for every 1,000 residents. That would take a force of 1,462 officers. The city now has fewer than 1,000.
Since every instance of public spending these days is termed as an “investment,” it's no surprise that George would use that term in appealing for more officers. But the city has a lot of things to “invest” in, including streets, firefighters, ambulance services, parks, etc. The city's 2014 fiscal year starts July 1. Between now and then, city officials will forge the 2014 budget, balancing requests for additional spending with available revenues.
In an op-ed published Friday in The Oklahoman, George wrote that the city “can easily justify an additional 250 police officers.” We don't quarrel with the “justify” part but we do with the “easily.” The city may struggle to fund even half that number of additional officers. Nevertheless, population growth, the climbing murder rate and public safety in general justify a substantial “investment” in police officers this year.
We hope advocates for other city services will join us in urging that the police department be made a priority. Oklahoma's systemic overreliance on the sales tax for funding municipal services reminds us that an archaic government structure impedes the ability of cities to respond to changing conditions.
On the other hand, high-profile murder cases remind us that public safety is paramount in these dangerous times.