Fed Police Force Grows By Leaps and Badges

As ranks swell, some question whether bigger is better

FROM the FBI agents who nabbed Theodore Kaczynski in Montana to Border Patrol cops chasing illegal immigrants in Texas, the machinery of federal law enforcement today is bigger than ever before - and still growing.

At a time when most of the US government remains constrained by tight budgets, the amount of money devoted to federal law enforcement has almost doubled over the last five years. President Clinton wants to boost money for the feds further in 1997: His proposed budget asks for an estimated $23.9 billion for the "administration of justice" next year, up from this year's total of about $21.6 billion.

It's no mystery why federal agencies are getting scores of new investigators, more jail space, and new equipment. Voters want to get tough on crime. But concerns over the growth in federal law enforcement, for some time the rallying cry of the far right, are mounting within the mainstream. Some lawmakers and legal experts say that it is time to take a closer look at whether federal law enforcement has become too big, duplicative, and expensive.

"Bureaucratic 'mission creep' has led to overlaps in jurisdiction and has complicated interagency coordination," former attorney general Dick Thornberg told a November hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Crime. "The time has clearly come to step back and look at the structure of federal law enforcement."

Rep. Steven Schiff (R) of New Mexico, a subcommittee member and former Albuquerque district attorney, welcomes the increased federal crime-fighting role. But, he adds that it "has caused some very real problems. The answer is to address the problems and not go backwards and reduce the growth."

Many experts have called for the consolidation of agencies that have similar missions, like transferring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms from the Treasury to the Justice Department. To improve coordination, some have proposed the creation of a federal law enforcement equivalent of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff. That idea has failed to gain much support because it too closely resembles a national police force.

Experts express other concerns. They worry about increased federal intrusion into what the Constitution reserves as mainly a state responsibility, the accountability of federal law-enforcement agencies, and the potential for abuse. "Any time you increase law enforcement, there is going to be a corresponding decrease in civil liberties," asserts Mark Kapelhoff of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Police state?

A Government Accounting Office report prepared for the congressional hearing in November says the federal law enforcement community comprises more than 41,000 people employed in 32 agencies at an annual salary cost of $2.2 billion.

The biggest agencies, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are in the Justice and Treasury Departments. They are followed by the enforcement and criminal investigation branches within the Commerce, Interior, Defense, State and Transportation Departments, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a host of other agencies.

The growth in this community is evident from federal budget data. In 1980, the Justice Department's $2.4 billion budget accounted for about 0.4 percent of overall federal spending. Its proposed fiscal 1997 budget of $18.6 billion would consume about 1.1 percent.

Another measure is the federal prison population, which has soared from 24,252 in 1980 to the current total of 102,495. A lack of space is prompting the Clinton administration to request congressional approval of funding in fiscal 1997 to build five new prisons and expand two of the existing 86 federal penal facilities.

Some experts trace the beginning of this expansion to the 1970s, when organized crime and white-collar crime started drawing greater federal scrutiny. The community grew faster and further in the 1980s, with initiatives such as former president Reagan's "war on drugs," which included congressional passage of stiffer jail terms.

Despite his 1996 State of the Union declaration that "the era of big government is over," Mr. Clinton has perpetuated the trend, targeting areas like illegal immigration, terrorism, and gang violence. In many cases, the GOP-controlled Congress has gone along.

Each new federal anticrime initiative has necessitated increases in investigators, prosecutors, judges, administrators, marshals, and prison guards, and the funds and infrastructure needed to support them.

"There has been an increased federalization of law-enforcement activities right down to the street," says David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo, Ohio, who follows the issue. "All of this makes for an increased law-enforcement presence in life in general."

Border Patrol booms

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is undergoing perhaps the largest percentage expansion of any federal law-enforcement agency.

Spurred by a political backlash against illegal immigration from Mexico, the agency's Border Patrol will have doubled the number of its agents since 1993, to more than 6,000, by the end of this year. The House recently approved legislation that would add another 1,000 officers for each of the next five years.

With more agents on the job, the numbers of illegal immigrants being detained and deported is rocketing, requiring the INS to boost the number of its courts and detention centers. The infrastructure expansion is also fueled by an administration effort to step up the deportation of illegal aliens serving time in federal prisons.

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