Police Chiefs Worry That GOP Crime Bill Means Fewer Cops

FOR Edward Gardella, chief of police in Worcester, Mass., part of the definition of community policing is to do ''anything and everything'' to get more police on the streets.

Last year, Mr. Gardella took advantage of a hefty $1.9 million in federal funds received under a community-policing grant to start the process of hiring new Worcester cops. But he worries that his ability to do such hiring in the future may be hurt by GOP efforts to amend the 1994 crime bill.

That's a theme that administration officials have been echoing in recent days, as the House considers GOP proposals to replace billions of dollars earmarked for new police with block grants that would allow states and localities more flexibility in spending the money. President Clinton vows to veto any bill that would change his plan to put 100,000 new police officers on US streets.

Republicans, for their part, say they're not trying to prevent communities from hiring new cops. They just want to remove federally imposed restrictions on the money. Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida says the Republican House proposal will allow ''cities and counties to fight crime as they see fit. It is a rejection of the Washington-knows-best mind-set that gave us the 1994 crime bill.''

Under the terms of the Clinton crime bill passed last year, more than $200 million was awarded to communities in all 50 states in the first phase of the federal program known as Cops on the Beat (COPS).

Twelve police departments from the largest cities in Massachusetts are listed in the original version of the crime bill to receive the sought-after COPS funds over a three year period. Another 200 towns here received $17.4 million in a third round of grants under the crime bill. Most of the money will go to smaller towns to hire one or two officers.

What police departments want are more police officers, says Chief Gardella. He lost 26 percent of his personnel over the last few years as Worcester, a community of 170,000, tightened its budget. At the same time, the department was hit with a 130 percent increase in calls for service.

The community-policing funds would enable him to hire 26 new recruits. Two-dozen others are now attending the police academy as a result of $686,000 in state funds received last year. ''When they graduate we'll add to our bike patrol and our walking beats,'' he says. ''Also, we're close to starting a unique neighborhood service center, not a substation, where police will be there along with other city services.''

The COPS grants are designed to cover 75 percent of salaries. The other 25 percent comes from local funds. Cities are responsible for health benefits, up to $8,000 a year for each policeman.

Under the crime bill's stipulations, police departments receive federal money only after recruits have been trained at academies. Because of layoffs, the Brockton, Mass., police force was reduced to 102 patrolmen two years ago. Now, because of state funds and the anticipated federal funds, the number could reach 169.

Under two separate funding categories, the Boston Police Department is scheduled to receive more than $3.5 million to hire 61 new officers. ''Our concern is that flexibility be retained in the funding,'' says Jim Jordan, a department official, ''and cities be allowed to apply directly for funds. But the House and Senate versions are different, and who knows what will happen.''

Under one House GOP proposal, communities or counties would set up boards composed of representatives from the police, courts, and groups to determine local anticrime needs. In turn, the boards would apply to the federal government for the block grants. The boards decisions could conceivably lead to greater funds for police departments, rather than less.

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