Police in five New Jersey cities where departments have had deep layoffs are making fewer arrests for minor offenses -- a trend that experts fear could lead to a rise in the most serious crimes.
Newark, Trenton, Paterson, Atlantic City and Camden, all densely populated cities with significant crime problems -- all faced with precarious tax revenue and declining aid from a state government that is also cash-strapped -- have all made deep cuts in their police departments since the start of 2010.
An Associated Press analysis of municipal court data shows that when police are laid off, department priorities shift: Arrests and summonses of all kinds drop, with enforcement for minor crimes and traffic violations suffering the most as police focus their remaining resources on more serious offenses.
The strategy may make sense, but experts say it leaves a troubling gap in law enforcement.
"People are committing crimes and they're not suffering the consequences for it," said Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk. "I think it has emboldened those who are committing the crimes. They do not get arrested, and consequently, they continue committing these crimes."
The data, collected by the state judiciary, breaks down arrests and summonses by broad category of crime, but not specific offenses.
From January 2009 through November 2010, Newark police made arrests or issued summonses about 5,100 times a month for offenses classified as "other" infractions, such as curfew, noise and littering violations. Since the layoffs, the AP found, the number has dropped by nearly half, to 2,600 a month.
In Camden, monthly reports of traffic summonses for infractions like speeding and running stop lights plunged from 3,820 to 1,850 post-layoffs.
In Paterson, arrests for charges like shoplifting and possession of small amount of drugs went from just over 700 a month before the April layoffs to an average 545 in the five months afterward.
The drop-off in arrests might not be immediately noticeable on the streets, but police experts are worried about the long-term impact.
Since the 1980s, police departments across the country have paid more attention to so-called quality-of-life crimes. A crackdown on minor infractions, the idea goes, creates more community pride and puts behind bars more people who might otherwise be committing serious crimes.
That approach to policing is widely credited with having sharply cut rates for major crimes in New Jersey and across the country over the past three decades.
The new data show that layoffs are undermining that approach, said Wayne Fisher, director of the Police Institute at Rutgers University's Newark campus.
"We begin the downward spiral," Fisher warned. "We may go back to the kind of crime level we were all used to in the 70s and into the 80s."
Officials in Newark, Trenton, Camden and Paterson have either declined to be interviewed about the drop in arrests or not responded to requests. Their unions have said the cutbacks will directly cause crime in all categories to spike. While that could be true, it's a hard case to prove.
The comprehensive arrest data collected by the New Jersey courts provide a picture of how police priorities have changed in the wake of layoffs.
The statistics include arrests and summonses by offense category and are compiled monthly. The AP reviewed data from January 2009 through September in order to capture trends before and after police layoffs.
In four of the New Jersey cities with deep cuts, the story has been similar. There have been fewer arrests per month, post-layoffs, for most types of offenses, but the biggest decreases are for the least serious crimes. In Trenton, where the layoffs came in mid-September, it's too early to tell, though arrests in every kind of case declined sharply in September in the capital city.
"In general, the less-serious stuff is treated with more discretion," said Mike Maxfield, a criminal justice professor at New York City's John Jay College. "You can't write off a bank robbery, you can't ignore a homicide."