Police Welcome New Crime Bill But Warn Impact Will Be Limited
LOS ANGELES — POLICE Comdr. David Gascon sees the problem in numbing detail every day.
It is there in the statistics that come across his cluttered sixth-floor desk - the ones, for instance, showing that there have been 908 murders so far this year in Los Angeles, just below last year's record pace.
So when members of Congress rise with their telegenic smiles and furrowed brows to show that they are going to do something about crime, as they have been lately with even more than the usual chest-pounding, it doesn't bother Mr. Gascon. Any help for America's thin blue line is welcome.
``The clear message is that there needs to be more police officers,'' he says of Congress's efforts. ``There is a recognition that we need to deal with violence in our society.''
In an age when violence seems abundant and resources meager, those on the front lines of crime in America will take any largess Washington is willing to hand out - another cop on the beat here, a midnight basketball game for gang members there.
Yet, beneath any anticipation in the precincts and all the posturing among politicians, there is also the recognition that nothing Congress does will do much to curb a problem that runs far deeper than a few more prisons or drug treatment programs.
``We need a lot of help for the family,'' says David Ramirez, a juvenile court judge in Denver. ``We need to provide more therapeutic services for the family, more economic services.''
``We always seem to separate programs for intervention, prevention, and detention,'' he adds. ``They're all related.''
The anticrime package expected to be approved by the United States Senate this week includes elements of all three - though not in the proportions everyone would like. Whatever its merits or deficiencies, the legislation represents a marked shift of federal dollars toward a problem that many say has been overlooked by Washington for more than a decade.
The federal government currently spends about $750 million annually to help states fight crime - far less than it did even 20 years ago. Much of the money is in the form of small seed grants.
The Senate's anticrime package would up that to about $22 billion over five years. That would include some $9 billion to help cities hire more police officers, $3 billion to build regional prisons, and another $3 billion for boot camps and other incarceration programs.
What will ultimately emerge from Congress, of course, remains uncertain. The House still has to weigh in with what it wants to do, and plenty of differences remain over the emotional issues of expanding the death penalty, gun control, and the amount of money that should be put into get-tough programs versus prevention and treatment. From Capitol to the street
Yet underlying it all remains the question: Will anything that emerges from Congress affect crime on the streets?
``What Congress does won't have the greatest impact, but it will set an example,'' says James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, referring to some elements of the package. ``A lot of issues are local, such as what to do with schools.''
The marquee provision of the legislation, putting more cops on the beat, shows some of the limits of Washington's reach. The money is expected to underwrite the addition of 60,000 to 100,000 officers over five years.
When those men and women in blue are spread over hundreds of urban and rural areas, local police ranks won't be expanded dramatically - perhaps a few hundred in a city like Los Angeles, according to one Senate staff member.
Local officials will also have to come up with some money to pay for the officers. In the first year of the program, the federal government would match local funding 3 to 1. But the amount diminishes each year after that, until, in five years, the local communities are picking up the full tab.
``The federal government will help put 60,000 officers on the street,'' says the Senate staff member. ``The question is, will they stay there?''
The limited arithmetic doesn't necessarily panic local officials. In Los Angeles, which has one of the lowest police-per-population ratios of any large city - 7,600 cops to cover 3.5 million people sprawled over 467 square miles - the hope is to leverage any federal dollars.
Officials at City Hall had already been planning to expand the force to 9,500 to 10,000 officers. It isn't certain, though, where the local funding will come from.
How the police are used may be more important than the numbers. LAPD officials want to use additional police to buttress its move toward community policing. That may be wise. To be effective, says James Wilson, a criminologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, the key will be use officers ``to target certain neighborhoods.'' Are more cops needed?
Still, some question whether more cops are needed at all. Many criminologists and other analysts say Washington is once again putting too much emphasis on the police baton rather than the social problems underlying crime.
Although the Senate legislation would channel several billion dollars into preventative programs, like counseling and recreational activities, the House may want more.
``We tend to just keep going for more cops, more jails,'' Judge Ramirez laments.
* Tomorrow: the crime bill and prisons.