Critics Blame Drop in Law Enforcement Funding for Spike in Crime

While the post-Sept. 11 homeland security effort has sought to make the nation a fortress against the threat of another deadly terror attack, domestic violent crime is up for the second straight year and critics say negligent politicians are partly to blame.

"There has been a massive reduction in the amount of attention being paid to crime," said Gene Voegtlin, spokesman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"If you talk to police, they'll tell you that fighting crime is like cutting the grass, you have to keep up with it. We didn't do that," he said. "We're seeing the results of that and I think the time has come where the wake up call takes place."

According to figures released by the FBI in December, the first six months of 2006 saw a 9.7 percent increase in robbery, a 1.4 percent increase in murder and a 1.2 percent increase in aggravated assault — a 3.7 percent increase in violent crime overall. Rape was down 0.1 percent from 2005 and property crimes like vehicle theft and burglary were also down by 2.6 percent overall.

Most crime trackers say no one cause can explain the spike, which began in 2005 after 15 years of declines. On the surface, the increase could be attributed in part to ineffective prisoner rehabilitation, the rise of methamphetamine abuse and shrinking employment opportunities for the unskilled labor force.

But critics charge that in Washington, where problems and solutions revolve around the federal pie, local law enforcement grants have shrunk by more than a billion dollars over the last decade.

"We've been concerned for years and years over the direction we've been taking" in the administration of grant programs like the Community Oriented Policing Services and the Justice Assistance Grants, which incorporate two funding sources — the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program and the Local Law Enforcement Block Grants, Voegtlin said. Those programs seek to streamline the federal funding process and apply money to prevention and crime control activities based on local needs.

Voegtlin said other money going to states and municipalities has been in short supply while increased homeland security funds go to the nation's "first responders" each year. Police are competing for funds with firefighters, public health and other agencies for Justice Department grants providing for crime prevention, anti-drug programs and gang-fighting assistance.

Democrats who just took majority power in Congress last week, have said they will be pushing for a restoration of funds and taking a serious look at where departments of Justice and Homeland Security monies are going now.

"The new nationwide crime numbers are a call to arms," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who has been a member of the House Judiciary Committee Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee.

Weiner took particular issue with cuts to the COPS Program -- designed in the 1990s under the Clinton administration to put 100,000 new local police officers on the street.

"Democrats are committed to reversing the disastrous Bush administration policies that slashed the best crime fighting tool we had," he said.

The Bush administration has questioned the efficacy of COPS and the other grants, including the Byrne Program, which the White House has tried unsuccessfully to kill. It has consistently called for drastic cuts. Congress has typically approved budgets above the president's requests.

Nevertheless, COPS has seen a decrease in funding of $1 billion since 1998. In the current fiscal year, it received $476 million. The estimated $2 billion that states and municipalities receive each year for everything from juvenile crime prevention to detaining illegal aliens has also been in steady decline.

David Muhlhausen, who tracks law enforcement and criminal justice programs for the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said he supports the White House cuts and called suggestions that Washington is to blame for the crime spike "hogwash."

"Eliminating wasteful and ineffective law enforcement grants will not cause crime rates to increase. These programs did not work to begin with," Muhlhausen said.

In 2005, a Justice Department inspector general's report found that police departments across the country had misspent millions of dollars in COPS allocations. Evan Peterson, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, pointed out that the COPS program was never meant "to provide salaries for (new police officers) on a regular basis" and has "fulfilled its original purpose."

He also told that federal assistance accounts for no more than 4.5 percent of state and local law enforcement spending and can hardly be counted upon to make or break the efficacy of a police force in fighting crime.

But sources on Capitol Hill say members on both sides of the political aisle will no doubt support beefing up the programs for fiscal year 2008 as the crime issue gets renewed attention and the presidential election heat up.

A House Democratic aide who did not want to be named said the crime rate and funding cuts, particularly to prevention programs, have been ongoing concerns.

"I think it's coming home to roost," said the aide. "It's not even a surprise."

But not everyone on Capitol Hill is making that argument. "I doubt federal spending levels have significantly impacted crime rates," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., also a member of the crime subcommittee.

Feeney told that while Congress has a role to play in addressing problems like methamphetamine production and illegal immigration, "community crime fighting has by and large been most successful when enforced by strong state and local law personnel who know the individual needs of their own communities."

David Kass, director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an organization of some 3,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, victims and others, said federal dollars can certainly help kick-start innovative crime prevention programs as well as old family-based programs like Head Start, which provides, among other opportunities, low income children with pre-school educations.

He said he and others will use the recent crime statistics to press their point.

"That’s where we could have the greatest impact — early education," said Kass. Members of his group are also lobbying members to invest in new programs, like those that would provide coaches for new parents in at-risk families and after-school programs for kids. "The best way to prevent crime in the first place is to give kids a good start in life."

Voegtlin said despite the doom and gloom, he feels recent headlines will draw bipartisan support, and that action isn't all about money.

"There is more that can be done," he said. "We shouldn’t be combating crime in a purely reactive mode. We think its time to get out there and take a closer look at how law enforcement operates and how criminal justice operates."