By Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Detective Sgt. Mark Mulcahy hit the streets one recent
Saturday, checking on convicted sex offenders in Kalispell. It's a duty he believes
makes the northwest Montana community safer, but it probably would not exist if
a federal program hadn't helped put another cop on the street to free up Mulcahy.
"In the past, we didn't have the opportunity to do this," Mulcahy
said in a telephone interview. "It's such a large job, it kind of requires
at least one person designated to it."
Federal funding for the grant program that helped hire the new police officer
in Kalispell, and thousands like him across the country, may be drying up. After
several years of declining financial support, the Bush administration proposed
no funding for that hiring program and others like it for the next fiscal year.
Administration officials say the Clinton-era effort met its goal of helping
put more than 100,000 officers on the streets and in schools across the country,
and that there were no guarantees for long-term funding levels.
Many in law enforcement see the timing as unfortunate. Departments across the
country, even small ones, are being asked to take on more responsibility in
the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. At the same time many departments -
especially those in rural areas, where even one extra officer is a big benefit
- are seeing their own local funding tighten. Many say the potential loss of
federal hiring dollars removes one of the best tools they've had in recent years.
"When you find something that works, you hate to see it go away, particularly
I would think now, when safety has to be a top priority," said Frank Garner,
president of the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police.
"We clearly have more police officers in uniform than we would have otherwise,"
said Garner, who also is the police chief in Kalispell, a town of about 14,000
people in the Flathead Valley, not far from Glacier National Park.
"For the last two years, we've seen police agencies do all they can to
meet demands put on them," said Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel at the
Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"The only way you're going to have an effective anti-crime or anti-terror
effort is to have people out working with communities," Voegtlin said.
That was the idea behind the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services,
or COPS. Since 1995, it has provided nearly $10 billion in grants to state and
local law enforcement, including funds for hiring, equipping and training officers,
said Gilbert Moore, a spokesman with the office. Montana alone has received
about $60 million, which has been used in part by departments to hire about
395 officers, he said.
Hiring funds have been declining since fiscal year 1999, when about $1.2 billion
was available for COPS-administered hiring programs, Moore said. In fiscal year
2004, only about $114 million was available, Moore said.
John Nowacki, a Justice Department spokesman, said hiring programs administered
through COPS have met the goal of funding the hiring of 100,000 officers.
"The mission for funding is completed," he said.
Under the Universal Hiring Program under COPS, the government picked up as
much as 75 percent of entry-level salaries and benefits for new hires over three
years; the maximum contribution over that period is $75,000 per officer. Those
hired were expected to be in addition to any officers that would have been hired
using local dollars, and departments had to keep officers on at least one budget
cycle after the grant expired.
Some communities, such as Bismarck, N.D., have been able to use the grant program
to permanently expand their police force as intended. Police Chief Deborah Ness
said all 11 positions added with COPS money since 1997 have been retained, and
the City Commission had time to plan for absorbing their salaries.
In Cheyenne, Wyo., Police Chief Robert Fecht said four officers added with
COPS funds have helped his force, but acknowledges it's still hard work just
to maintain the status quo.
In Sundown, Texas, Police Chief Shawn Myatt said he and another officer had
to answer calls and cover for each other on days off before COPS funds allowed
the tiny community to add a third officer.
"In a small department, one officer is worth his weight in gold,"
he said. The manpower allowed officers to put on programs on topics such as
crime prevention and drugs, for students and parents, he said.
Other cities have been less fortunate. Tiny Miles City, Mont., hired two officers
through COPS grants in recent years. Both are still there, but budget cuts prevented
the city from filling two other positions. So the COPS program, in the long
run, has yet to actually increase the city's police force, said Capt. Kevin
In November, voters in Billings, Mont., the state's largest city, will be asked
to pass a public safety mill levy that would help maintain or strengthen the
police force, Chief Ron Tussing said.
COPS funds have put officers on the streets of the city of 92,000, but grants
for five of those officers are expected to expire within the next two years,
and the local budget is tight. Some retiring officers already aren't being replaced.
"We've about reached the doing-more-with-less limit. There is a point
where people want to see a cop, and they want to see one soon," Tussing
Kristen Mahoney, director of grants and government relations for the Baltimore
Police Department, said the city saw a reduction in violent crime with the addition
of 200 COPS-funded officers playing a huge role.
A loss of dollars could mean communities returning to "baseline services,
and that's not where they want their tax dollars. ... They deserve more,"
Mahoney called the COPS program "a success story in government."
Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations,
said any hiring money would help local departments, and he holds out hope that
Congress will act.
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"I don't think there's any substitute for an officer on the street,"
he said. "If your home is broken into at 2 in the morning, you want lots
of officers in your home. You don't take comfort in a new computer back at the
station. What matters is the officer."