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Back to Archives | Back to July 2012 Contents 

Research in Brief: Estimating the Cost of Crime in Philadelphia

By Kevin J. Strom, PhD, Senior Social Scientist, RTI International, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and Member, IACP Research Advisory Committee; and Jack R. Greene, PhD, Professor, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, and Member, IACP Research Advisory Committee

The IACP Research Advisory Committee is proud to offer the monthly “Research in Brief” column. This column features evidence-based research summaries that highlight actionable recommendations for Police Chief magazine readers to consider within their own agencies. The goal of the column is to feature research that is innovative, credible, and relevant to a diverse law enforcement audience.

The economic downturn has forced a number of U.S. municipalities to make difficult decisions about budget reductions across a range of city services including resources dedicated to law enforcement and public safety. However, police leaders often have limited information on how to evaluate the potential impact that reductions in sworn personnel could have on crime in their cities.

One effective method for estimating the trade-off between public spending on policing and the occurrence of crime is through the use of a cost-benefit analysis, which provides policy makers with measures of the costs and the benefits of different policies. Researchers have used cost-benefit analysis to estimate the impact of crime prevention approaches (for example, drug treatment, more prisons, and more police) on the cost of crime.1 Such information can be highly useful for police leaders to better understand potential impacts of staffing changes on crime and provide information that can be communicated to city councils and mayors responsible for budget decisions and oversight.

A 2010 RAND publication summarized the existing research on the cost of crime and the effectiveness of police in preventing crime.2 The report presented a recommended method for comparing the costs of police personnel with the expected benefits generated by police in terms of reduced crime.

In 2009, the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) was one of many U.S. police departments facing budget cuts and reductions in the city’s police force. Using the methods summarized in the RAND publication as guidance, PPD staff estimated the potential impact on crime that would accompany the planned reductions in staffing.

The PPD looked at three key areas:

  • the estimated cost of crime in Philadelphia for 2009,
  • the estimated impact of budget cuts on policing resources, and
  • the estimated impact of reductions in force on crime in Philadelphia.

Estimating the Cost of Crime in Philadelphia for 2009

Crime in Philadelphia in 2009 was estimated to cost more than $4.4 billion over the long term in both tangible and intangible costs. This estimate included the average cost of specific crimes (for example, homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft) multiplied by the total number of crimes committed in 2009 in Philadelphia. The average cost associated with a crime ranged from more than $2,100 for a larceny to $8.6 million for a homicide. These included tangible costs that reflect direct financial losses to an individual, a business, or a government (for example, property loss, medical treatment for injuries, and loss of productivity) as well as intangible costs that include costs associated with poorer quality of life because of fear of crime or psychological effects from victimization.

Estimating the Impact of Police on Crime

The combined impact statistics from the RAND study were used in Philadelphia to estimate the impact of a budget cut on crime. Results demonstrated that a budget reduction of 2.5 percent that reduced the sworn headcount by 5.3 percent or 357 officers could result in 805 additional crimes in the city at a cost of $163 million. The impact of police on crime also was calculated using more conservative estimates for crime.3

In summary, a 2.5 percent cut to the PPD’s 2009 budget was approximately $13,535,082, estimated to result in a reduction in force of 357 police officers or 5.3 percent of the force. This reduction, using the RAND methodology, could result in between 551 and 805 additional crimes at a cost of $80 million to $163 million in tangible and intangible costs to the city and its residents.

These findings do have limitations. For one, the causal links between policing resources and changes in crime rates, while supported by an increasing body of research, still are not fully demonstrated. In addition, the cost estimates associated with violent crime—especially homicide—are subject to debate, with the estimated costs in Philadelphia ranging from $8 million per homicide to about $5 million depending on the method employed. The impact of homicide in these cost-benefit models must be highlighted because homicide alone accounted for about 80 percent of the overall cost of crime in the calculations. Furthermore, the costs of crime, particularly the intangible costs, are based heavily on theoretical assumptions.

These methods and objectives do, however, provide police leaders with useful information as they communicate the potential impact of budget changes to mayors, city councils, state legislatures, and others. Changes in departmental resources and officer staffing are linked in part to a police departments’ ability to fight crime. Communicating these linkages to city councils, mayors, and other policy makers is essential for police leaders. As the Philadelphia example demonstrates, the expected reductions in that city’s police force could have a sizable impact on crime in that city for years to come. ♦

1Mark A. Cohen and Alex R. Piquero, “New Evidence on the Monetary Value of Saving a High Risk Youth,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 25, no. 1 (2009): 25–49; and Mark A. Cohen, Alex R. Piquero, and Wesley G. Jennings, “Studying the Costs of Crime across Offender Trajectories,” Criminology and Public Policy 9, no. 2 (2010): 279–305.
2Paul Heaton, Hidden in Plain Sight: What Cost-of-Crime Research Can Tell Us about Investing in Police, Occasional Papers (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2010), (accessed May 31, 2012).
3Cohen and Piquero “New Evidence on the Monetary Value of Saving a High Risk Youth.”

Action Areas
  1. Access the RAND publication online to review their crime cost estimates.
  2. Conduct an estimate of the cost of crime in your community
  3. Research other cost/benefit estimates on crime from law enforcement journals
This research summary was adapted from an analysis conducted by the Philadelphia Police Department.
Interested in submitting a research summary for Research in Brief?

Please cite as:

Kevin J. Strom and Jack R. Greene, "Estimating the Cost of Crime in Philadelphia," Research in Brief, The Police Chief 79 (July 2012): 10.

Click to view the digital edition.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 7, July 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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