Mayors Want Federal Focus on Cities

By Holly Watt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 6 -- Dozens of mayors and police chiefs Wednesday called on the federal government to focus on fighting crime in cities, saying that the efforts that had driven down urban crime had dissipated since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and that they were seeing a consequent rise in crime levels.

The demand came as the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) met here to discuss a crime-fighting blueprint to present to the next president.

The group also published a survey of 124 cities that asserted that deteriorating economic conditions have contributed to a rise in crime in 42 percent of them.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a possible running mate for Sen. Barack Obama, said he is determined to ensure that attention is concentrated on crime. "I've not been able to get any traction on this for eight years," Biden said, adding that the presumptive Democratic nominee is "100 percent behind this."

Biden said police have been caught in a bind with less funding available, the FBI deployed to work on counterterrorism rather than urban crime, and economic conditions deteriorating. He said the federal government can no longer say crime is a local issue and called for an additional 90,000 police officers on the streets.

USCM's president, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz (I), said that despite attention directed on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the presidential candidates need to address what is going on in "our back yard." He said he was concerned that the gradual rise in crime may accelerate. The USCM emphasized that according to crime statistics, many cities saw dramatic increases in murder, assaults and robberies in 2006.

"We've gone through seven years of really, really tough times. I'm part of the 2001 class, and it's been difficult," Diaz said. "If you look at where we were in the late '80s and early '90s, crime was out of control. There is an uptick at the moment. You can't just say, 'Job done.' "

Diaz added that Biden had asked the group's task force to go through his crime bill line by line, as the group did before the 1994 crime bill, the legislation that was widely credited with reducing crime levels. "That's how we got '94 passed, and that's how we're going to get '08 through."

Doug Palmer (D), the mayor of Trenton, N.J., called criminals on the streets "domestic terrorists." He added: "If al-Qaeda came into the country and was murdering 50 kids a day, we would have more money than we know what to do with."

According to the mayors, properties left empty after mortgage foreclosure are vulnerable to vandalism and burglary, with 29 percent of cities reporting increases in these crimes. The steep rise in value of precious metals and scrap means that vacant properties are being stripped. Empty homes "blight" nearby residences, with incidents of arson and drug users moving in.

Rising fuel prices are affecting police departments, with 46 percent of cities responding to a USCM survey saying the effect was "very significant." In some cities, recruitment is being affected as the cost of fueling vehicles bites into budgets. Officers are now required to double up in cars or spend 15 minutes a shift without the car engine running.

Whereas at their staffing peaks, the 124 cities had 68,026 police officers, numbers have now fallen almost 9 percent, to 62,157, according to USCM research. Miami Police Chief John F. Timoney, who is also president of the Police Executive Research Forum, said the gradual rise in crime is attributable to reduced staffing. "As the feds withdraw, it is no surprise there has been a rise in crime, violent crime."

The Conference of Mayors is made up of the chief elected officials of the 1,139 cities with a population of more than 30,000. Though it asserts it is bipartisan, it has tended to be dominated by Democratic mayors.

The group is holding a series of events to develop a strategy for the first 100 days of the incoming president's administration.

Four more mayoral forums will be held over the coming months, in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, to address infrastructure, poverty, arts and the environment.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company