Washington cuts bucks for badges

Bush administration adds terrorist fight to the burdens of local police departments, then slices funding

James Alan fox is a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University.

April 21, 2004

With public support for his anti-terror strategy shrinking fast, President George W. Bush dared uncharacteristically to wander the night of April 13 from the safety provided by his speech writers to field questions from White House reporters about the administration's tactics before and after the Sept. 11 attack on America.

Noticeably squirming in this, to him, unfamiliar format, he vowed to "stay the course" in his "freedom for Iraq" approach to defeating the forces of terror.

Regrettably, he has failed to show nearly as much resolve and commitment to our front-line of defense at home - local police protection.

Much more at his comfort level, Bush stands proud - shoulder-to-shoulder with heroes of the NYPD in photo-ops and campaign ads - while at the same time depriving the local finest of the necessary federal funds to do the job: Keeping us safe from not just external terrorist threats but from common street crime as well.

In a classic case of money-vs.-mouth hypocrisy, Bush says he supports the officers in blue uniforms who patrol the streets of New York and elsewhere just as much as those in green uniforms in Baghdad; but his funding priorities say otherwise.

The Bush budget proposal for fiscal 2005 would decimate federal programs on which local police agencies have depended to supplement limited local resources. Under Bush's plan, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program would be slashed to a paltry $97 million from $756 million, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

At the same time, charges the IACP, other Justice Department assistance to local law enforcement initiatives, provided through various block grant programs, would be cut by 42 percent from fiscal 2004.

The president is clearly playing politics with policing, and jeopardizing us all in the process. Looking back over the past decade, it was the federal government's initiative to put 100,000 more cops on the street, managed through the COPS Office, that was key to much of the success in cutting crime through the 1990s to levels not seen in this country for more than 30 years.

Of course, COPS was one of Bill Clinton's pet programs, advocated during the 1992 campaign and delivered with Congress' aid. But Bush, from the start of his term in 2001, targeted this Clinton program for downsizing, and regrettably he, too, has delivered on the promise.

This change in priorities is much more and far worse than the typical move in Washington politics to throw out a predecessor's agenda and replace it. This one has the tragic irony of occurring when the affected services provided by local law enforcement are as critical as ever.

Compounding the political hypocrisy is the fact that the federal government is asking local police agencies to do more, not less, in the face of a terrorist threat.

If anything, the Bush administration should be increasing local aid to law enforcement, not diminishing it.

Of course, the Bush supporters counter by suggesting that the Department of Homeland Security is funded to assist in many of the same kind of local policing tasks. Why is it then that New York's and many other major departments across the country are being forced to trim their ranks due to lack of funding? Just when the police workload is expanding, the workforce is shrinking. Retirees are not being replaced, and recruiting efforts have been greatly reduced.

In the year following the World Trade Center attack, for example, the number of sworn NYPD officers dropped 5 percent, from 39,067 to 37,240.

And that is just the beginning, if the Bush budget plan prevails. With the Republican National Convention beginning in New York in late August and possibly the summer Olympic Games coming in 2012, Bush's agenda for shortchanging law enforcement increases the likelihood of catastrophe.

The threat of terrorism remains a sad fact of modern life, and crime rates are poised to rise once again. Unfortunately, the process of attracting talented young police recruits, training and outfitting them for service cannot be accomplished overnight. It is a critical resource that must be developed long before the need turns acute.

President Bush should be less concerned with the Department of Homeland Security's color-wheel of terrorist risk. The time for a "Blue Alert" is now.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.