Federal Crime-Fighting Cuts Cause Alarm
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
That's because the task force, like hundreds of other specialized state and local law-enforcement teams across the country, relies heavily on a federal funding stream that Congress slashed by 67 percent late last year.
With county governments and the state of Montana unable to fill the budget gap, the 16-year-old unit may be forced to fund operations through an unlikely, and highly unreliable, source: so-called "forfeiture money," cash seized during crime investigations.
While police units often use confiscated money to help with costs, such funds cannot be expected to cover salaries and other major operational expenses, said Lt. Dan Springer, 36, the task force commander. That the unit is preparing to use drug money for those purposes is a measure of just how dark its budget picture has become, Springer said, noting that layoffs and the disbanding of the unit also are on the table.
Similar scenarios are playing out across the nation, as cash-strapped law-enforcement teams from California to Pennsylvania come to terms with potentially crippling cuts in funding under a key federal grant program. State and local governments, struggling as the U.S. economy falters and tax revenues flatten, are unable to help.
Congress last December sharply reduced funding for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program from $520 million last fiscal year to an all-time low of $170 million this year. The reduction, part of a much larger appropriations bill signed by President Bush just after Christmas, caught many law enforcement officials by surprise; funding for the grants previously had not dipped below $415 million annually.
State and local officials - including all 50 governors, all 50 state attorneys general and members of the National Association of Counties and National Sheriffs' Association - have reacted with alarm. They are urging Congress to restore the Byrne grant program at least to its 2007 level before this fiscal year ends and local task forces are forced to confront huge shortfalls.
They also are warning of an increase in drug trafficking and other serious crime unless funding is restored, particularly as the U.S. economy worsens.
"When the economy lags, crime often spikes," Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general, told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee during a hearing last month. "With the forecast of an economic downturn, now is not the time to cut funding to the principal federal crime-fighting program."
Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe (D) this month told Stateline.org that the federal reduction to Byrne grants "will send a signal to drug traffickers that will be viewed as a green light to increase drug trafficking in our states," adding that "more children will be exposed to illegal drugs."
The Byrne grants, named for a slain New York City police officer and distributed annually by the U.S. Department of Justice, help fund a variety of state and local law-enforcement activities, including police units that target gang activity and county prosecutors who bring suspects to trial.
The law enforcement agencies likely to face the most pronounced cuts - because they rely so heavily on Byrne grants - are multi-county task forces that combat drug trafficking within and between states. Seventy percent of the Missouri River Drug Task Force's overall budget comes from the grant program, according to Springer.
In states along the U.S. border with Mexico, the cuts in federal funding will limit the operations of task forces that regularly intercept large quantities of illegal drugs bound for major American cities, said Derek Rapier, the Greenlee County, Ariz., attorney. Rapier said that in Arizona , such task forces "address not only local drug problems, but they are gatekeeping for the rest of the country."
In the Midwest and Northern Plains states, law enforcement officials warn that the cuts threaten to undo gains they have made against methamphetamine, a highly addictive and destructive drug that has overtaken cocaine and heroin as a substance of choice among many young people and ravaged communities.
Several Midwestern U.S. senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky , have asked Bush to press the Democratic-led Congress to restore Byrne funding. More than 40 state attorneys general lobbied Bush on the subject during a meeting at the White House this month.
Bush has continued the cuts to the Byrne grant program in his fiscal 2009 budget proposal, which is now being debated in Congress. A Justice Department spokeswoman, Sarah Matz, said the president is seeking a different funding scheme that would consolidate a number of grant programs.
Unless Congress restores funding for the Byrne grants this fiscal year, Springer said, the Missouri River Task Force is likely to shut down operations and send detectives back to work for county police departments. Those departments, in turn, probably will be forced to lay off other, less-experienced officers as they take on the salaries of the task force members, currently paid for the Byrne grants.
"If they do get us back to the funding we had last year, we'll be fine," Springer said. "If they don't, I don't know if I have an answer as to what we're going to do."
Springer said it was unlikely the task force could "pause" its work this year and resume again sometime in the future if and when Congress restores full funding. The unit has bank accounts that must remain active, informants who communicate regularly with officers and an operations center with phone and computer lines that need to be maintained.
"Most people will tell you: To maintain a business is cheaper. To start a business is very expensive," Springer said.