- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

Large police departments across America are looking to the federal stimulus bill as a lifeline that will save jobs and help keep crime in check, but many smaller departments, which are less hard-pressed, see it as a chance to go on a shopping spree.

The Washington Times contacted 19 police departments of varying sizes across the country, and found a wide disparity in needs between the larger and smaller forces.

An expected grant of $1.3 million to police in Suffolk County, N.Y., will be a “godsend,” according to County Executive Steve Levy, whose force provides security for 1.3 million people spread across two-thirds of Long Island. The department already has scrapped plans for a class of 80 police recruits and fears it would have to cut deeper without the grant.

“Right now, in our tough economy, any assistance for public safety will be relished,” said Mr. Levy, who hopes the stimulus money will allow him to save jobs and hire some new officers. “It’s a different world right now; we’re just not getting the type of state assistance we’re used to getting, and we’re hoping the federal government will step in.”

But Mike Lowell, chief of the 50-officer department in Rock Springs, Wyo., said he will spend an expected grant of $210,561 on discretionary programs like an upgrade of the force’s information technology or a new program to combat domestic violence.

“It allows me to get ahead of the game,” he said. “If we get the money, or don’t get the money, we’re just fine. That’s the way I look at it.”

The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included $4 billion specifically for law enforcement to be distributed through the Justice Department.

About $1 billion of that will be distributed through the Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) program, which Obama administration officials say could pay for the salaries of 5,550 entry-level police officers for three years. It could also go toward paying higher salaries to experienced officers. Another $1 billion will go to specified federal purposes - building jails on tribal land, compensating crime victims, beefing up law enforcement along the Mexican border and targeting child predators on the Internet.

But the largest chunk of money - $2 billion - will be distributed through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which allows police departments tremendous discretion. It is the Byrne money that many smaller departments plan to use for discretionary items, such as new equipment or community-outreach programs ranging from drug treatment to education.

Critics of the program complain that some of the stimulus money will end up covering costs that departments could have managed through normal budgetary channels.

“There’s virtually nothing in the Byrne grants or the COPS grants that’s going to help stimulate the economy,” said David Mulhausen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “What does the funding of victims’ rights groups have to do with stimulating the economy? Virtually nothing.”

Even departments that use the money to pay salaries may find themselves in the same dire straits when the funding dries up, he said.

Corrected Paragraph: But Greg Whisenant, the CEO of a crime-mapping Web site called CrimeReports.com, called the money for law enforcement a “huge achievement” - and not just because of the jobs it will save. He said the spending on equipment and technology upgrades is equally important.

“I think it’s monumental and perfect timing,” said Mr. Whisenant, a former aide to Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican. “They are truly 10 years behind in some cases when it comes to technology.”

For major police departments, the priority right now is just to keep officers on the beat.

In a recent survey of 233 large police departments, the Police Executive Research Forum found that 12 percent of those surveyed are considering layoffs or forced retirements to make ends meet.

Toledo, Ohio, has sent layoff notices to 75 of its 627 officers, according to Chief Michael Navarre. Those layoffs would come on top of about 100 officers lost during the past decade, which Chief Navarre said has forced the department to scale back its detective bureau and community policing initiatives.

“We prioritize the services to the public and the No. 1 priority is calls for service. There’s a lot of other things we don’t do as well,” he said. “If we have layoffs, it’s pretty much down to basics.”

One notable exception is Washington, D.C.

The 3,800-officer department has not faced layoffs and plans to use its portion of grant money to battle gangs, to sustain its firearms examiners and cold-case victims unit and to fund youth-intervention programs, according to police spokeswoman Traci Hughes.

That means the District has more in common with the 300-officer force in Waterbury, Conn., which hopes to use its $429,000 Byrne grant to improve its forensic laboratory and possibly fund a crime-prevention program for city youths.

Among other smaller forces, the 35-officer department in La Vista, Neb., plans to use its $16,525 to buy laptop computers for patrol cruisers, while the 16-officer Mechanicsburg Police Department in Pennsylvania would like to use its $22,275 to put video cameras in patrol cars.

The results of The Times’ informal survey jibe with the findings of a study by criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston.

Mr. Fox said that despite a decade of shrinking grants from the federal government and states, he found no significant changes in the number of officers at police departments in cities with populations of less than 250,000.

But the number of officers at police departments in cities of 250,000 people or more has shrunk 9 percent in the past decade, he said. Mr. Fox attributed the cuts to reduced federal funding, coupled with decreases in state and local budgets.

“Does that translate into more crime?” Mr. Fox said. “Potentially, yes.”

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