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Budget cuts threaten to take punch out of Reagan's 'war on crime'

By Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 1981



Washington

The Reagan administration may have declared "war on crime," but it will be a battle with reduced troops and equipment. This is the judgment of many members of Congress as well as local law-enforcement officials as they weigh the words from the President's self-style "bully pulpit" against the actions he is taking.

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Federal crime-fighting programs are not being spared the kinds of spending cuts widespread in Washington these days. The administration's recent second round of budget reductions for 1982 raised Justice Department cuts to more than Investigation and $35 million from the Drug Enforcement Administration. US attorneys, marhalls, and immigration officials will be affected, and there are strong indications that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms will be disbanded, its duties reduced and delegated to other agencies.

Such cuts, says an official with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, are likely to have an adverse impact on local law-enforcement efforts. For example, says IACP spokesman Robert Angrisani, the FBI will no longer be able to search nationwide criminal history records based on fingerprints taken by local officials.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has provided 208 special agents to local task force groups pursuing major drug dealers. But this will be reduced to 94 agents, complains Rep. William J. Hughes (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the House subcommittee on crime.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported this week that the US prison population is increasing at the highest rate in 56 years, putting more than 20, 000 additional people into already overcrowded facilities. The attorney general's violent crime task force earlier this year recommended a $2 billion federal program for new prisons, but the White House rejected this as too costly. The administration also has sharply reduced funding for some 400 halfway houses.

"When one looks at the increase in the number of violent crimes and the number of firearms used in those crimes, it becomes clear that the federal government must play a larger role in combating the problem," says Police Chief Pat Minetti of Hampton, Va. Mr. Minetti recently testified on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Police Executive Research forum, a group of police chief executives.

While acknowledging that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) "does face substantial budget cuts," Assistant Treasury Secretary John Walker says "no final decision has been made to dismantle or abolish BATF." Yet, according to an internal Treasury Department memorandum, a "steering committe on the phase-out of BATF" has been named.

Fire officials and insurance companies, as well as police executives, are concerned about the future of the BATF since the agency provides major support for arson control.

"Many of the Newark arson squad's investigations have progressed beyond our capabilities only because of the intervention of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms," Said Battalion Chief Robert Fitzpatrick of the Newark, N.J., fire department.

Noting that arson-for-profit increases during tough economic times, Penelope Farthing of the American Insurance Association says, "now is the least appropriate time to reduce the federal law enforcement presence in arson detection and enforcement."

On Capitol Hill, may Republican as well as Democrats agree with Representative Hughes who says "we need to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." Rep. Hamilton Fish (R) of New York (who was robbed at gunpoint on Capitol Hill earlier this year) has proposed a new block grant that would help local authorities hire more police officers.

Many, many of us are in favor of cuts," says Rep. Harold Sawyer of Michigan, ranking Republican on the House Crime subcommittee. "But I do think law enforcement is the essence of government functions."