March 30, 2009 / 10:38 PM / 10 years ago

Miami police chief sees crime risk if crisis cuts cops

MIAMI (Reuters) - Don’t panic: It’s wrong to think that the economic crisis and soaring unemployment will unleash a surge in U.S. crime, the veteran cop who heads the Miami Police Department said on Monday.

“We need to debunk a certain myth. Bad economy automatically means an increase in crime — not true,” police chief John Timoney said in an interview.

But there is still a real threat that crime will surge as the economy continues its downward spiral, warned Timoney, whose career spans more than four decades dating back to his days as a rookie officer at “Fort Apache” in New York’s South Bronx.

That menace stems from the fact that cities could be forced to start laying off police officers, wielding a double-edged budget ax by cutting policing efforts in areas where they are most needed, Timoney said.

“Where you will see an increase (in crime) is if you have less cops,” he said. “If there are less cops out there, they are less likely to apprehend the bad guys.”

Timoney spoke in his office in this city that was once considered America’s murder capital because of drug-related crime in the “Cocaine Cowboy” era of the early 1980s.

He acknowledged that there had been an increase in certain types of crime in Miami at the margins of the recession, including the theft of copper and other metals from construction sites.

But Miami’s murder rate was down in 2008 — a trend that continues this year — and there has been no sign of a spike in armed robberies or other violent crimes, he said.

SAFETY NETS

Even in Miami’s “Little Haiti” district, where many day laborers have had to cut back on the cash remittances they send to their impoverished homeland because of the U.S. recession, Timoney said violent crime fell in the last year.

“It’s not an American tradition,” he said, when asked about the correlation between economic hard times and increases in criminal activity.

“That’s something you see in other countries. There aren’t too many people that are going to bed starving,” he said, citing social safety nets, at least in major cities, that were generally helping to prevent things going from bad to worse.

“That, at least as far as sustenance and feeding your belly and putting some kind of shelter over your head, is in place.”

Timoney said there had been no move by city officials to cut the size Miami’s police force, even as other agencies have suffered deep cuts because of the knock-on effects of the recession.

He noted that some cities, including Sacramento and Philadelphia where he served as police commissioner for four years, had either frozen police staffing levels or started laying people off.

Where police manpower is reduced crime will rise, he cautioned. “The professional criminal gets to ply his trade much more often without fear of being grabbed by the police.”

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Chris Wilson

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