Police program faces budget cuts

Justice Department proposed FY2003 budget

A popular Clinton-era program that helped put more than 100,000 police officers on the streets and advanced crime-fighting technologies faces drastic cuts under President Bush's proposed budget, and that has municipal officials across the nation up in arms.

Local elected officials and law enforcement officers testified March 21 at a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee's Crime and Drugs Subcommittee that further cuts in the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program would jeopardize their efforts to fight crime.

"Many cities want to hire additional officers, move existing officers on to the streets and place new officers in schools," said Patrick Henry Hays, mayor of North Little Rock, Ark., who testified on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM). "We must ensure that cities have the resources needed to fight both the domestic war on terrorism and the continuing war on crime. We simply cannot rob Peter to pay Paul."

The actual proposed fiscal 2003 budget for COPS is $1.38 billion, but that includes $800 million for the new Justice Assistance Grant program, which merges the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant and Byrne Formula Grant programs. Municipal officials contend that it's an accounting shift to make it appear that the COPS budget is increasing when it actually faces a proposed cut of up to 80 percent.

In mid-March, mayors and police chiefs from across the nation, joined by some federal lawmakers, held a rally on Capitol Hill protesting the COPS cuts. USCM sent letters to Congressional lawmakers urging support for COPS and other law enforcement grant programs. A National League of Cities (NLC) poll of municipal officials conducted last month also indicated strong opposition to the proposed cuts.

COPS has exceeded its goals, deploying 114,000 officers nationwide, Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said. "It's been an emphasis shift in the overall budget to fight terrorism," he said. "That's a factor in many of the changes in the budget."

COPS was supposed to "sunset" at the end of fiscal 2000, but was reauthorized for 2001 and 2002 and will be reauthorized next year, Miller said. The new Justice Assistance Grant program will enable local jurisdictions to do everything they did with COPS. "They can hire. They can buy technology. They can buy equipment," he said.

USCM and NLC have published different figures for next year's COPS budget. However you look at the variations, the program — created by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — will be severely cut.

According to USCM, COPS is facing a cut from its current funding level of $740 million to $164 million in the fiscal 2003 budget.

Deborah Rigsby, senior legislative counsel for NLC, said her organization estimates that program funding for COPS would be slashed from $1.01 billion to a proposed $65.6 million. NLC is particularly concerned about the elimination of the universal hiring program, funding to hire school resource officers and grants targeted at smaller jurisdictions, she said.

"Those are the things that are egregious, and we want to restore the level of funding," she said. According to NLC estimates, the $65.6 million allocation includes $50 million to help police departments buy technology.

That was the thrust of COPS' Making Officer Redeployment Effective program (MORE), which is also eliminated under the proposed budget. That program, currently funded at $66 million, is largely thought of as the technology grants program, according to Gilbert Moore, spokesman for the COPS Office.

The technology program has provided more than $1 billion in grants to more than 4,500 agencies to employ technologies such as mobile data terminals, PCs, computer-aided dispatch systems, video arraignment and automated fingerprint identification systems, Moore said.

Some local law enforcement agencies have also used the program funds to hire civilians so police officers could be redeployed to the streets, Moore said.

It is critical for localities to have federal funds to purchase technology, which makes policing more effective, efficient and safer, said Olden Henson, a Hayward, Calif., City Council member and a member of NLC's Public Safety Committee. Hayward has used money to create a records management program; buy surveillance equipment, laptops for cruisers and traffic enforcement cameras; and develop a geographic information systems tool.

Recently, 10 Hayward police officers were called up by the military reserves, and some went to Afghanistan. "Technology is a major tool to offset that," Henson said. "You have to do something to compensate for those losses."

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