One of the biggest takeaways from reporting on Dallas' never-ending quest to calculate the level of police staffing needed to keep the city as safe and livable as possible is that so many people think they already know the answer. Cop union leaders, City Council members and the police chief — everyone has a set of assumptions operating when they talk about how many officers Dallas needs or how much the city should spend to hire them.
Among the most common ideas about police staffing is that there is a ratio of cops to citizens that will fulfill the city's public safety needs, one that's knowable despite whatever moving targets the city might have at the time. Academic research into staffing rejects this idea, and it's unlikely that the staffing study being performed by the auditing firm KPMG for the police department will provide anything as definitive.
That doesn't stop Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata from saying, unreservedly, that Dallas needs three police officers for every 1,000 residents for DPD to function at its best. Since 1988, that ratio has been a part of Dallas' code, too, approved in a city ordinance.
So where does the number come from, the one that tells us we need about 1,000 more cops than we have now?
Sam C. Johnson, who served as former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle's chief of staff and held multiple other posts with the city, says the answer isn't that complicated.
Johnson's story starts in 1980. He was a DPD sergeant assigned to the department's planning and research division.
"My job up there — boy this sounds important and it wasn't — was to be the custodian of the written directive system," Johnson says. "The real benefit behind that is, whenever you get sued, you get hauled down there on whoever's suing the officer and you've got to tell them why that officer violated, or didn't violate the [department's] policies. You're the expert. So what you did was deposition after deposition. It was terrible."
After the department had several high-profile failures in the late '80s — including the shooting of Etta Collins, a 70-year-old killed by officers on her front porch in 1986 — DPD brass decided they needed to figure out exactly how many officers they needed on the streets and hired an outside consultant.
"They hired a guy — he was out of Cal-Berkeley — named Ed Fennessey. He ran his own little one-man operation, but he was a brilliant researcher," Johnson says. "I was assigned to help Ed — that was no problem, he was a great guy — and Ed was supposed to sit there and figure it out, how many people we needed."
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Johnson helped Fennessey with a multi-variable study, looking into all the factors that needed to be accounted for as DPD attempted to police the city. When Fennessey finished, he sat down with Johnson, Johnson says.
"He said, 'Sam, I have no idea how many officers we need,'" Johnson says. "He said, 'You know we can never figure that out. We can never come up with a scientific reason and back it up. There's no way.' I said, 'You're right,' and he says we gotta come up with something. And Ed said, 'How do you feel about a nice, round three per thousand?' and I said, 'Let's do it.'"
The number Johnson says he and Fennessey came up with accomplished the same things in 1988 that it accomplishes today. It's higher than the cities with the least police per capita and lower than those with the most. It's also easy to remember, Johnson says.
"We put it in there, and it was the scientific bottom line of how many we needed, and it's still there," Johnson says.