Budget Cuts, Anti-Terror Duties Strain Policing
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
State and local law enforcement agencies have been expected to do more to protect the nation's critical infrastructure and major landmarks from terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, but budget cuts and increased anti-terrorism responsibilities are straining a ten-year effort by law enforcement to reduce crime rates by putting more police officers on the streets.
"[Police agencies] have to pull officers off the street to guard landmarks, bridges, water treatment plants, power plants, and the whole time officers are doing that they can't be on their regular patrols or beats," said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Officers (NAPO).
In addition, Justice Department cuts to federal funds for community policing programs have a particularly harsh impact on state and local law enforcement efforts.
The Justice Department reported that funding for the Clinton-era COPS (Community Oriented Policing Service) program that helped police departments hire 117,000 new officers has been cut in half in the past four years, from $1.1 billion in 1999 to $584 million in 2003.
"(The cutting) has had a dramatic impact for the worse, especially for local police departments," Johnson said.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the violent crime rate declined 10% from 2000 to 2001, continuing a decade long trend of crime reduction that some experts attribute to increased policing.
But preliminary data released by the FBI in December 2002 found that criminal offenses reported by law enforcement agencies in the first six months of 2002 increased 1.3 percent when compared to figures reported for the same period of 2001.
Fiscal conditions in state and local governments have forced one in four cities to lay-off police officers in the past year, according to a recent survey by the National League of Cities (NLC). In addition, the recent mobilization of National Guard and military reserve troops, many of whom are police, has reduced the number of available officers in two-thirds of the nation's metropolitan police departments, NLC found.
A fierce debate is being waged between federal, state and local governments over how much federal money should be given to state and local governments for domestic homeland security. So far this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released $566 million to state and local governments to help equip and train "first responders"- police, fire and health personnel.
But city officials say this is not enough to cover their homeland security costs, estimated by NLC at $3 billion in 2002, mostly in police overtime.
"[Cities] obviously have considerably more responsibility in terms of public safety due to the threat of terrorism, so you've got a growing challenge in terms of stretching a police force which has diminished in size to meet a challenge that has increased significantly," Cameron Whitman of NLC said.
The strain on local and state police is compounded every time the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raises the nation's terrorist threat level. The threat level has been at orange, or "high risk," for a month, costing some cities millions of dollars a week in law enforcement overtime.
"Each week we're on orange alert, New York City spends an additional $5 million in costs directly for police work, just in terms of over time and keeping officers on 12 hour shifts and bringing on people who would normally be off duty," Johnson said.
In San Francisco the high alert costs $2.6 million a week to increase security at landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge. Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have also reported cost overruns in the millions.
Despite being on orange alert, the Oregon Department of State Police is so shorthanded it cannot patrol state highways for four hours early every morning. A crippling state deficit of $2.5 billion forced Oregon to lay off 100 state police troopers one-fifth of the force.
State and local police officials also said that since domestic terrorism has become the top priority of federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, state and local police departments have lost federal support in terms of expertise and personnel to fight crimes unrelated to terrorism.
The FBI, for example, has 55 regional offices throughout the country, and before Sept. 11, several agents in each office were working directly with state and local agencies to combat everything from organized crime to the trafficking of drugs and illegal immigrants, NLC's Whitman said.
The FBI is now focused on tracking down domestic terrorists, and agents working in cooperation with local authorities on other crimes have walked away from those partnerships, Whitman said.