Cuts may mean no new officers on the beat

Bush administration wants to trim Clinton-era program by 17 percent, but insists safety won't be jeopardized.

Rich Roberts is readying for a fight.

As the director of special operations of the International Union of Police Associations, the former Maryland officer is mobilizing the union's 80,000 police to target lawmakers and urge them not to support the Bush administration's proposed cuts in the Clinton-era Office of Community Oriented Policing.

Known as COPs, it has provided partial funding for 115,000 new police on America's streets from Lenox Avenue in Harlem to untamed dirt roads in Utah. And police would rather see it expanded than cut.

"If this budget proceeds as is, it would be devastating for law enforcement," says Mr. Roberts.

In choosing to trim the COPs program to drive home a point about Washington's profligate spending ways, the Bush administration risks alienating a key constituency - law enforcement and its supporters on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

At the same time, with indications the crime rate may be ready to inch back up, some analysts contend the move could also jeopardize the GOP's efforts to win back the mantle as the nation's crime-fighting party.

From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the Republicans had a lock on the "tough on crime" image. Then came Bill Clinton and eight straight years of steadily dropping crime rates.

"Proposing these cuts could give the Democrats the opportunity to call them soft on crime," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "But I bet virtually all of the cuts will be restored by both parties."

The Bush administration insists safety would not be jeopardized by its proposal to trim the $1.3 billion program by 17 percent. It says it will keep intact other key elements, like funds for better technology and school-safety programs.

But the grant that helped communities pay for new officers is being dropped, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleisher, because it has accomplished its stated goal - to put more police are on the streets. The 1994 program was originally designed to last only three years. It's now in its sixth year.

"Programs never go away in Washington, and that's one of the reasons Washington is so big," says Mr. Fleisher.

The COPs program is popular with local officials and tied to the perception that neighborhoods are safer. While a buzzing economy, aging of the baby boomers and shifting drug markets all have contributed to dramatic drops in violent crime, many criminologists believe the COPs program has also played a role.

"It's hard to say with any certainty [the cuts] will be disaster, but it is a step in the wrong direction," says James Fox of Northeastern University in Boston. "I know this administration wants to give taxes back to the people, but having $2,000 in your pocket when there's no cop around when you need one won't be much consolation."

The Bush administration does have some supporters in the criminology community. Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California, calls himself a "lone wolf" on the issue. He believes that local law enforcement should stay a local issue, and he objects to the increasing dependence on Washington.

"[The program's] a giant step toward a national police force, which is a far greater threat to our liberty than crime," he says.

But Mr. McNamara admits that COPs has helped transform the way law enforcement operates around the country by providing new officers, technology, and training to get more police out from behind their desks, reacting to 911 calls, and instead out into the streets proactively working to prevent trouble.

The change can be heard in the crackle of the radio at the Guilford, Conn., Police Department. An officer out on the beat in the upscale coastal town calls in just one word: "update."

Sgt. Jackie Cipollini presses a computer key, and the officer's new position, along with the whereabouts of the department's other on-duty officers, rolls down the screen. "They can do almost everything from their laptops in their cars, even file reports," says Sergeant Cipollini. "They hardly have to come into the office."

Guilford's computer system was bought in part with a $63,000 grant from the COPs program. The town also won a grant for an officer to teach antidrug messages in the schools. It is among the 12,000 of the nation's 19,000 police departments that have received COPs grants in the past six years.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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