No doubt you've seen Washington's latest crime statistics.
The good news is that crime is not yet back to the record levels it reached in 1969. The bad news is the clear indiction that the crime stats are heading for the stratosphere again. There were 33 percent more major crimes in Washington this August than there were in the same month last year.
Washington Post staff writer Athelia Knight told us that major crimes now occur on an average of more than 200 times a day. In a single year, homicides went from 12 to 25. Robberies rose from 530 to 1,000. In August of 1979, there were "only" 1,089 burglaries; this year there were 1,715. Rape has become more than a daily occurrence; it is now reported 1.5 times a day (or 46 times a month). Aggravated assaults increased from 285 to 305. They now average 10 a day.
If statistics bore you or don't seem to be directly related to you, look at it this way: If last year only 18 people were robbed every day, and if this year 33 are being robbed every day, you may be one of today's extra 15 victims. And if you're not robbed today, it may be your turn tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.
As crime increases, it becomes increasingly likely that anybody who lives here, works here, or comes here to visit will be victimized.
It appears to me that at least two of the reasons for the upward trend in crime are easily identifiable. They are the diminishing size of the Metropolitan Police Department, and its great loss of experience and expertise.
As September began, 230 police officers chose to retire. Many were in the prime of life, and some had risen to command positions that made them especially valuable to the department and its "institutional memory."
I will make no attempt to generalize on why these officers chose to retire. The fact is that they did, although almost all of them are still in their 40s and 50s. A typical retiree might have joined the force at the age of 22 and put in 20 years in various assignments as he acquired a lot of savvy and rose through the ranks.
Now, when he is 42 years old and 42 times as useful as he was on the day he was sworn in as a rookie, the department loses him.
If you'd like to see what early retirements do to a department, get a pencil and some paper and do a bit of simple arithmetic with me. In the left-hand column, list 20 officers who each have one year of experience for a total of 20 man-years of experience. Beneath them list 20 who each have two years of experience, or total of 40 man-years. Next list 20 with three years of experience, 20 with four years and 20 with five years. That department's 100 officers will have 300 man-years of experience.
Now in the right-hand column list 10 men with one year of experience each, 10 with two years, 10 with three years, 10 with four years, 10 with five years, 10 with six years, 10 with seven years, 10 with eight years, 10 with nine years and 10 with 10 years each.
Your right-hand column will describe a police department that has the same number of officers as the department described by the left-hand column. But the right-hand side will have 550 man-years of experience -- almost double that of the group that lost its more experienced people. When you stretch the right-hand side to 20 years or 30 years, the difference becomes far more dramatic.
To make matters worse, the city is short of money, and one of the budget cuts proposed by the mayor was dropping 204 policemen from the force (in addition to the 230 who retired). Congress reacted quickly and disapprovingly because in Washington there is always the possibility that scores or even hundreds of additional policemen suddenly will be needed to replace striking jail guards, to assure security for a visiting prime minister, or to respond to an unexpected outbreak of mass violence.
Over the years, the size of our police department has gone up and down like a yo-yo. When crime increases, we recruit like mad until we have enough patrolmen on the streets to bring the statistics down. But as soon as that happens, we begin cutting the police department's budget until the crime statistics go up again.
The only thing new in the story is that this time we can't pay the policemen we have, let alone hire more.
The news media cover crime news and police department news on a day-to-day basis. Occasionally they also look at the larger picture. They analyze trends and try to supply answers to questions like, "Do we have as good a police department as we used to? Is it as big as it needs to be?"
If the answer to either question is "No," the next question must be, "Why?"
The answer to "Why?" should properly come from our political leaders. Why isn't there enough money? And what's the best way out of the hole we're in?