Vanishing Act

More dollars for homeland security and war means less for police amid a rise in violent crime nationwide. 

by / July 31, 2007 0

Community policing was born in the 1990s when a surge in the national crime rate prompted the Clinton administration to flood the states with Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants that put cops on the streets and in many cases, laptops in their cars.

The original COPS grants resulted from the COPS bill in 1994, which aimed to put 100,000 new police in the communities where they could forge relationships and develop trust among the populace. Later COPS MORE (Making Officer Redeployment Effective) grants allowed police to use the money for crime-fighting technology.

Perhaps coincidentally, the COPS grants paralleled a dramatic drop in crime throughout the '90s. But after 9/11, much of that money dried up or was shifted for homeland purposes. Again perhaps coincidentally, the crime rate took an upward turn for the worse nationally in what one police chief called an epidemic of violence.

With resources now going to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a clip of $10 billion a month, $1 billion of "get Osama bin Laden money" going to Pakistan every year, as well as $34 billion (fiscal 2006) going to the states for homeland security -- though that pie is also shrinking -- police say they're getting squeezed, and it's affecting how they cope with the spike in violent crime.

"The COPS Office over the years was a great source of leveraging technology, but over the last six or seven years, it's pretty well been gutted, and most of the funding that was going to police has been redirected to homeland security or the war effort," said Colorado Springs, Colo., Police Chief Richard Myers. "That left us high and dry, and that's why we have fewer cops on the streets than we did pre-9/11."

White House officials didn't return phone calls requesting a response.

In many midsize cities, police are down in numbers, and cops say they've turned from community-oriented police to "in your apartment police" as they struggle just to get from call to call. Many departments say they've lost their ability to use intelligence or focus on preventive policing because they're mired in answering calls.

"At any given time, darn near every cruiser in an urban jurisdiction may be tied up with social-related, crime-related problems," said Springfield, Mass., Police Commissioner Edward Flynn. "We work hard to create a preventive policing capacity. But we really end up spending an awful lot of overtime because if we just staff up to meet the needs of our calls for service, we don't have sufficient organizational slack to provide a stable presence in public spaces, and people need to see cops in public."


Community Involvement
In the early 1990s, with crime rates on the rise, police began getting out of their cars for face-to-face communication with residents. By the time COPS was rolled out in 1994, crime rates had begun to dip in some areas, and community policing garnered much of the accolades. The COPS grants helped further the cause and put anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 new cops on the streets (depending on whose numbers you use) to forge a bond with communities and gang up on the bad guys. 

The COPS grants required that all new officers took to the streets to spend time with the local citizenry. Crime rates continued to dip, and at remarkable levels -- from 1994 to 2000 violent crime declined by 46 percent nationally.

But after 9/11, the Bush administration focused on homeland security, and direct funding to law enforcement took a detour to homeland security causes. Some funding still winds up with law enforcement agencies, but it's earmarked specifically for homeland security, according to Flynn.

"What those of us in law enforcement noticed in the years after the 9/11 attacks -- particularly when the congressional funding started making its way to local government

via the states in 2003 -- was that at the same time funding was expanding dramatically in some cases for homeland security equipment and programs, at the same rate or even more rapid rate, funding for criminal justice generally, and law enforcement specifically, was dramatically being scaled back," he said.

Police are in a position to provide homeland security intelligence, Flynn continued, but they're so tied up with their core responsibilities that they can't develop relationships with the community.

"By removing our ability to consistently interact with them to buy bunkers or explosion detection vehicles -- or whatever the hell -- you're removing from us our ability to develop street-level intelligence about ongoing suspicious conditions," he said. "The same people who want to tell us about drug dealers will tell us about terrorists if they trusted us and knew us.

"Our position is the core missions of police and fire are the same regardless of the cause," he continued. "The police respond to threats, try to prevent threats through the development of intelligence, and they have to have both a tactical and strategic capability. Fire departments deal with HAZMAT incidents and fires and explosions. Who the hell cares who did it?"

The Bush administration submits a yearly budget that hacks away at COPS funding. For the most part, Congress restored some of that funding before those budgets became law, but the COPS hiring grants and MORE grants disappeared altogether. Overall, COPS grants and State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance grants, the two main pots of federal justice money, fell from $4.4 billion in 2001 to $2.5 billion in 2006. As of May 2007, the fiscal 2007 justice funding was still up in the air.

Congress has fought to keep justice funding levels near what they were for 2006, fending off the administration's attempt to cut back again.

"The question is will the money be there," said Gary Cooper, vice president of Research and Consulting for CJIS GROUP. "We see authorizing bills, but as far as money is concerned, it's just smoke and mirrors. Until you appropriate it, it doesn't mean anything."


Alarming Trends
Along the way, violent crime began to rise again.

Between 2004 and mid-2006, the murder rate reached a 20-year high in Cincinnati and a 16-year high in Fairfax County, Va., according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR). In Boston; Richmond, Calif.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Springfield, Mass., the murder rate was at a 10-year high.

In 2005, robbery and aggravated assault increased to a 14-year high. In a 2005 National Crime Victimization survey, attempted robbery with injury was up by nearly 36 percent. Even in Seattle, where violent crime is usually low, there was a 25 percent increase in gun crimes. Robbery is also up in many parts of the country, according to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

UCR statistics for 2005 showed arrests of juveniles for robbery increased by more than 11 percent and were deadlier. Youths look for iPods and use a technique called "rat packing," where the robbers use their cell phones to call their mates and coordinate when to swarm on a victim. Particularly alarming to police is the fact that many of the victims were shot without provocation after the robberies, according to the PERF report. 

It's the inner cities where gangs are resurging, and the mixture of youth and guns is creating a volatile mix. With a decreasing police presence, the seeds for more violence get planted, police say.

"The problem is when we are not available in public spaces, citizen fear increases, which undermines community confidence in cities and sometimes their economic viability, and that's happening in a lot of midsize cities," Flynn said. "It's less of a factor in a New York or a Chicago than it is in a

Springfield or a Rochester, [N.Y.]."

Those larger cities, Flynn said aren't as dependent on federal grants because they can tap more indigenous resources. "The burden really falls heaviest on what I'd call the 'cruiserweight' cities. The cities between 100,000 and 300,000 population are the ones that had the biggest overall spikes in violence over the last five years."

In many of those cities, the attrition rate of officers -- through retirement, layoffs and deployment to war -- creates an increased burden. Cities such as Minneapolis, Boston and Detroit employ fewer officers than at the beginning of the decade. The Richmond, Calif., Police Department experienced a 25 percent drop in police officers.

Minneapolis, which has been forced to cut 140 officers since boosting the number to 938 in the late '90s, conversely has seen a rise in robberies by about 20 percent. Detroit is down 1,000 officers, and Richmond and Boston -- two of the cities with the biggest jump in violent crime -- have fewer officers than they did in the '90s.

"We're not being alarmists, but we do believe it's prudent to intervene before one enters a crisis, not after the crisis has occurred," Flynn said, adding the rising trend in violent crime is undeniable. "I'm not going to attribute the crime to law enforcement capacity directly, but I will say that again, nationwide there has been a significant decrease in the number of officers working since the functional ending of the COPS program and with the resultant or coincidental fiscal difficulties of states and cities."

Nobody is willing to say police can prevent rising crime rates, but they do say spending dwindling resources rushing from call to call instead of community policing detracts from the ability to use intelligence from the community and focus on high-priority areas. It also undermines the community's feeling of safety and trust.

In Colorado Springs, Myers said, the situation is critical. "We are increasingly reaching what we call the saturation point, which is when you make a call for service and we don't have one free officer citywide to respond to that call."

Myers' staff recently met to discuss and identify what police activities bring the greatest value to the community and which ones can be eliminated. They may decide to go completely to "cold reporting status" for traffic accidents as they do at busy times of day, meaning that unless there's an injury or drunk driver involved, the police won't come.


Less Money, Less Flexibility
Everyone acknowledges a combination of factors led to the lowered crime rate of the '90s, including a strong economy, a decrease in crack cocaine use and a smaller population of young people. Currently there are several factors boosting the surge in crime, such as the resurgence in methamphetamine use and baby boomers' children at an age when they're most likely to commit crimes.

"It's complicated," said Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty. "Talk to any chief and if they say they have control of crime, they're not being honest. You don't, because there are so many social factors involved."

Oklahoma City didn't accept COPS hiring grants because of the stipulation that officers hired had to be kept for at least a year after the grants ran out, and the city didn't think it could match the funds. "I think a lot of communities had that problem," Citty said. "They took advantage of the COPS grants and all of a sudden, they had to fund it themselves."

Yet, as critics of the COPS hiring program quickly point out, Oklahoma City, too, experienced a drop in crime in the '90s, proving that with or without the extra cops, most cities saw a hiatus in criminal activity anyway. Another criticism of the COPS

hiring program was that some of the money was misspent, and that many open positions were never filled. Federal audits have actually proven as much.

Oklahoma City, however, tapped other justice block grants, such as Justice Assistance Grants, which were used to buy technology and for overtime to staff high-priority areas. "The block grant money was huge," Citty said. "We went from having $1 million to spend before 9/11 to about $300,000 now. That's a big hit for us."

Now there's less money for everyone, and a lot of it is earmarked for homeland security. "We had much more discretion with that [Justice Assistance Grants] funding," Citty said. "We bought computers with it, used it for information systems, our fingerprint systems, overtime programs in high-crime areas and entertainment districts where we really needed additional manpower."

"The grant money that came in from homeland security was extraordinarily restrictive, even for training," said Flynn, who served for more than three years as Gov. Mitt Romney's secretary of public safety and administered homeland security and criminal justice grant money during that time. "You might want to do sniper training but no -- you had to prove you were doing terrorist-related sniper training. Fire departments might have wanted to do HAZMAT training, but if they didn't link it to a nexus with terrorism, they wouldn't fund HAZMAT training."

That lack of flexibility may have been a backlash to claims that some of the early homeland security money was misspent. "It's been limited, and that's been compounded by the fact that in some parts of the country, I don't think the grants have been used wisely," Myers said. "The pie has been carved up in so many pieces trying to satisfy dozens and dozens of constituencies that it's turned into more of a Christmas list for local government managers who couldn't get what they wanted out of their normal budgeting procedures. They've leveraged some of those homeland security grants to get -- I don't want to call them toys -- but operational items that probably should have been a part of the regular operating budget."

As much of the rest of the nation, Oklahoma City is now dealing with a gang problem and an alarming rise in violent crimes involving fatalities. "Last year 35 percent or 40 percent of our homicides had gang members involved," Citty said. "That's high because a couple of years ago we had three, and then last year we had 23. That's a big change."

Citty said there aren't necessarily more gang members, but they are getting more violent, a sentiment other chiefs recently echoed. "We're seeing a lot more gun violence. There are a lot more guns out there, and it's a big issue for us and for most cities."

To address the violence, Citty has to pull officers from other areas. "That's one of those areas where if I had additional funding from our Justice Assistance Grants, I could use that money to get additional people and pay overtime where I need the manpower. It gave us some flexibility."


New Grant Money
There could be some fresh funds from the federal government for fiscal 2008. In May 2007, the House passed the COPS Improvements Act of 2007 (H.R. 1700), which authorizes $1.5 billion annually from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2013, $350 million of which can be used for technology.

Myers said his department is eligible for grants but would be required, under the act, to match 25 percent of the funding. "We are really struggling with this latest announcement. If we were to seek the full $6 million that we would be eligible for under the grant, I'd have to come up with $1.5 million to match that. I just got marching orders to cut 3 percent of my operating budget for the rest of the year."

Myers said he would love to spend the $6 million on technology. In Colorado Springs, he is operating a department that relies on portable radios. "I don't even have hard-mount radios in the cars. We're working in a portable-only environment, and we're having coverage issues with that and don't have the funds to put car radios in every squad car. It's hard to talk about these technologies and efficiencies we can gain when we're not even meeting our basic technology needs."

Myers sees policing at a crossroads with technology that could dramatically increase the effectiveness of police. "It's been forecast that we're somewhere between 20 and 40 years away from a human interface with chip technology. Somewhere down the road, officers will be able to download mug shots of every wanted person and by looking at the faces recall immediately whether it's a wanted person or not. That's radically going to change how we do business."

There is technology available now that makes life easier for some police forces but to others, it's just a dream. "The issue of when you do a traffic stop and somebody doesn't have their license with an in-car video system and perhaps some fingerprint technology, have that immediately run through a database and search nationally to find out who this person is; that exists, but it's not widely in use by police," Myers said.

Funds for that kind of system are not always available at the local level and technology is getting even less affordable, Myers said.

"The rate of change of technology is occurring exponentially, and the days of being able to spend a whole lot of money on some new technologies and riding that wave for 10 years or until you have to update it, those days are gone," he said. "Technology now requires constant maintenance and updating, and the rate of obsolescence is skyrocketing."


Back in the Community
Part of the funds from H.R. 1700 will allot monies to be spent on school resource officers to help combat gang violence. That's a good first step. Police say communicating with youngsters before they're involved in a shooting doesn't happen enough either in schools or on the streets.

"You can become more efficient with the technology, and we're doing that as far as identifying the issues and trying to be more proactive in addressing those. But you can't get away from perception. People want to be able to see an officer in their area," Citty said.

Part of that is community trust, and that has eroded in the last several years, police say. People in the affected areas are too scared to even call the police, and inner-city youngsters are conditioned not to snitch. 

Joe Ryan, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Pace University in New York City and a former New York City police officer, believes police have taken on a "militaristic" approach to policing in the last several years and need to revert to community policing.

"The idea behind the federal government giving money to local police agencies is to promote innovation," Ryan said. "Collecting information about what's in your community is really important. We need to get the officers back in the community, and at the same time, use the information to make them more efficient."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor