OP-ED: Police Shouldn't Expend Resources on What They Can't Prevent

It's often easier to do what sounds good than to act pragmatically. Case in point: the announcement by the Long Beach Police Department that it will be "providing additional patrols at and around theaters" as a response to the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

What happened last week was both horrific and frustrating and one's immediate reaction is to want to do something—avoid crowded places, take up arms, call 9-1-1 to report every black-clad figure, maybe even (gasp!) change our gun laws. It's discomforting and unsatisfying to admit that any wacko who wants to walk into a cinema and start shooting people is going to find ample opportunity to do just that.

The basic job of the police is to protect and serve, but however much they want to, protecting us from such occurrences is not within their powers. Deputy Chief Richard Luna admits as much in the department's announcement: "[W]e are always concerned a violent act of this scale could occur at a place where the public gathers," he says. "We hope a tragedy like this never takes place in our community, but we continuously train and are prepared to respond should this type of situation ever arise."

Respond. Because this is all the police can do to such a terrible act, it's probably not in the city's best interests for the LBPD to deploy its too-limited resources as if the truth is otherwise, no matter how good the shift feels on the surface. Especially when those resources might be used to mitigate the less dramatic but far more common dangers that kill exponentially more people.

Let us imagine that 2012 is a record year for mass murders at movie theaters in the United States, that from now through the end of the year there are 20 copycat crimes, with each attack leaving 50 people dead. With 1,000 souls lost, police forces all over the country would mobilize to do something, anything in the attempt to stop the carnage.

Funny thing is, 1,000 deaths per year is estimated to be no more than 50 percent—and perhaps as little at 12 percent, depending on the study—of the number of fatalities resulting each year from texting while driving.

The point here is not to lambast the police for taking too little interest in preventing these thousands of deaths per year—our lawmakers are far more blameworthy for not imposing sufficiently stringent deterrents to such murderously negligent behavior—but simply to frame the Thin Blue Line's focus in pragmatic terms.

Policing is a zero-sum game. Every resource put into play at X is a resource that cannot be used at Y. More focus at cinemas means less focus somewhere else. At least if providing additional patrols at and around theaters were a realistic prophylactic against copycat crimes, there might be some value in the shift of resources. But it's not. And considering the nearly certain reality that somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 times fewer people will die in 2012 from theater shootings than from texting while driving—a constant practice on the streets of Long Beach—the public might be better protected and served were the LBPD to use those additional patrols to minimize the omnipresent and more destructive danger than the headline-grabbing nightmare that, like most nightmares, is extremely unlikely to manifest.

Often enough, staying the pragmatic course will run counter to the reflexive response one may have to a dramatic occurrence. The LBPD is undoubtedly well intended in its current redeployment of resources, but let us hope the redeployment is short-lived, because the department has too few resources to combat the dangerous criminal activity occurring daily in our city (texting while driving being one example among many), even without diverting any in the direction of an extremely unlikely crime that they are powerless to prevent.

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