WASHINGTON – It’s budget season, and police officials who say local law enforcement is the first line of defense against crime and terror in American communities say they will not let go of their favorite funds without a fight.
"There has been nothing that has brought us together as a single, priority issue than this issue — without this, none of the other stuff flows, and I assure you, without it, there will be police officer reduction issues," warned Chief Edmund Mosca, head of the police department in Old Saybrook, Conn., a small town along the Long Island Sound.
The "stuff" he refers to is funding for primarily three sacred federal law enforcement funds: the Community Oriented Policing Services (search) program, the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant Program (search) and the Edward Byrne Memorial Grant Program (search), all provided currently through the Department of Justice and all on the chopping block in President Bush’s 2005 budget proposal.
"It comes at a time when [police] are expected to do more," said Gene Voegtlin, spokesman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (search), which organized a trip for about 70 of its members to take their case to Congress in March.
"They say pretty strongly and consistently that if this budget goes through as passed, they are going to have be laying off police officers," he said.
But Capitol Hill officials say the administration is simply consolidating two of the three funds and shifting some of them to the Department of Homeland Security, where they will be better managed and used more effectively for emergency services, and will undoubtedly include local law enforcement funding.
"You want to make sure the funds are going where they are most needed," said John Scofield, Republican spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. "We are putting large pots of money over at DHS for first responders, so you can make the argument that it makes sense."
That’s fuzzy math, say the police chiefs and their supporters on Capitol Hill. According to the IACP, the Bush proposal for fiscal year 2005 would cut the COPS program to $97 million from $756 million; while the LLEBG and BYRNE programs would be combined under a new justice assistance grant for a total of $508 million, which is 42 percent less than what these two programs received separately in 2004.
In total, the 2005 proposal for the three programs represent a 63 percent decline in funding year-over-year, said the organization.
Supporters of the Bush plan said the decrease is offset in bolstering the Homeland Security budget and puts existing funds to more efficient use. The police complain that that money can only go to anti-terrorist related funding, and will have to be divided between all first responders, including firefighters, emergency medical services — even animal control.
"Now the money is being lumped into one office, but the aggregate total is smaller than what they were getting before," said Dave Helfert, Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. "The total is being reduced significantly."
But analysts like David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation, who has been following programs like COPS since it was established under the Clinton administration in 1994, said these pipelines are largely outdated and don’t achieve their mission.
"There has been no research available that says whether these programs have been effective in reducing crime," Muhlhausen said. "What this really comes down to is these have been basically a hand out to the police departments across the country."
The mission of COPS was to put "100,000 new officers on the streets," as beat cops promoting the ideals of community policing efforts. Monies from this fund would pay for a new officer for the first four years with the local department picking up the tab for subsequent years. Many departments dropped the officers after four years, said Muhlhausen. Others used the money for equipment and technology, which was also allowed.
The LLEBG program helps state and local departments with local grants, while the BYRNE program focuses on anti-drug resources. The police chiefs say all three have been useful for everything from putting new computers in police cruisers to funding school resource officers and school Drug Abuse Resistance Education — better known as D.A.R.E. programs.
Muhlhausen said the proposed cuts won’t hurt departments if the money is cut back, since they don’t represent significant portions of their budgets, but others say that given the cash-strapped state budgets, something has got to give.
"If the local departments don’t get the resources that they usually get, if they lose people and I don’t have the people to send to them, now that is an indirect effect on us," said Ron Ruecker, superintendent of the Oregon State Police. He said he was forced to lay off 300 people in 2003, including 129 troopers, because of state budget problems. "It’s very, very tough."
Both the House and Senate are hammering out their budget resolutions this month, using the president’s budget request as a template. Aides on both sides of the political aisle concede that much of the money will be restored to the local law enforcement grants some way.
"It will be a challenge because it is a lean year," said Scofield. "That being said, we have a good record of funding law enforcement."
Helfert said the Democrats will make sure of it. "At this time, it is more critical than ever to make sure that the local public safety services have the funding they need."