Double Blow for Police: Less Cash, More Crime

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Philadelphia officials are leaving 200 police positions unfilled and cutting back on overtime.

Sheriff's deputies in Polk County, Fla., are picking up more work after the state highway patrol froze hiring and four local police agencies disbanded.

And police in Atlanta are shouldering a 10 percent pay cut after all 1,770 employees and the police chief agreed to a furlough of four hours per week.

The nation's economic trouble has hit state and local law enforcement, with two out of three large departments reporting budget cuts or hiring freezes. And at the same time, leaders at more than a quarter of the 233 departments that responded to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum say they are noticing an uptick in property crime that they blame, at least in part, to economic unrest.

Local police departments already have been grappling with tighter budgets in recent years as the federal government has shifted funding from law enforcement to homeland security.

As Congress has debated a huge economic stimulus bill this year, Democratic lawmakers have pushed for it to include $2.64 billion in crime-fighting grants and more than $1 billion in funds to hire 50,000 police officers. But such federal money typically comes with a requirement that localities match 25 percent of the total with funds from other sources. Police groups are lobbying the Obama administration to relax that policy.

If police departments receive the stimulus funding, it could still take them 18 months or longer to advertise for recruits, weed through applications and put the probationary employees through training before they ever appear on the beat, experts said.

Personnel is by far the single biggest expense for police forces, experts say, and many of the recent trims have meant cutting staff. The effects have included restrictions on overtime and delayed recruiting efforts. In some cases, departments have urged victims to report some crimes online or make a trip to the police department rather than call officers to their homes.

Among the other items on the chopping block, warned Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, are special units designed to combat narcotics traffic, gangs and other community problems. Ramsey, who served nine years as the D.C. police chief, said Washington and other cities may have to curtail successful programs that have flooded crime "hot spots" with officers.

Around the Washington area, counties are also feeling the constraints. Fairfax County officials agreed last fall to a one-day furlough of nonessential county employees. Prince George's has faced the prospect of layoffs, and Montgomery County's firefighters union announced last month that it had agreed to wage concessions.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, reported in a recent paper that the number of police officers per capita across the nation has been reduced by 9 percent since 2000.

"The connection between the economy and crime is an indirect one," Fox said, "but where the economy does play a role is through the ability of municipalities and cities to fund crime control. We just don't have the resources to maintain successful programs and crime-control initiatives."

In response to pleas from state and local officials, the Obama administration is looking to loosen restrictions on how a portion of $3 billion in annual homeland security grants can be spent.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said recently that she hopes to help state and local governments cope with plummeting tax receipts.

"They're just struggling to pay their basic costs," said Napolitano, a former Arizona governor and federal prosecutor.

Pleas for federal funding from state and local law enforcement are rekindling a political debate. Critics say that state officials are exaggerating the risk of increased crime and assert that federal support encourages municipalities to be fiscally irresponsible.

David B. Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that fighting crime is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments.

"The federal government should not become a crutch on which local law enforcement becomes dependent," he testified.

The funding debate has intensified as the demand for services has increased, according to victims rights advocates.

Mary Lou Leary, a former U.S. attorney in the District who now directs the National Center for Victims of Crime, said that members of her organization, which helps crime victims across the country, reported a 25 percent increase in calls from October 2007 to October 2008 "as job losses and economic stress factor into increased violence."

"More people are getting victimized," she added. "There are fewer service providers open because of the economy. Victims coming in have a broader range of needs. . . . It is a very challenging environment."

Law enforcement officials are warning about another potential source of trouble: the difficulty that prisoners returning to the community will have finding work and job-training programs.

Meanwhile, Polk County Sheriff Grady C. Judd, who runs an 1,800-member force in the Florida county, said he is taking a long view.

"I've done this 36 years, so I've seen the good times and the bad times in the delivery of police services," he said. "You can just predict: if you reduce the number of police officers, it will increase the level of crime in the community."

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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