Budget Cuts Stall Community Policing Program in San Diego


San Diego Union Tribune

WASHINGTON, D.C. - San Diego County sheriff's Sgt. Ron Edwards was dispatched months ago to Fallbrook, where there were signs of trouble in one neighborhood: gangs, drugs and graffiti.

Edwards and his partners made arrests. The officers also surprised some residents by working with organizations to clean up the area, evict troublesome tenants and repair sidewalks.

For all practical purposes, Edwards was doing "community policing" – working with neighborhoods to fix up areas, not just going after the bad guys.

The problem was that budget cuts in Washington had already slashed the money available for this kind of community policing, forcing Edwards out of a specialized unit. He had to return to basic patrol work.

But he has been determined to keep alive the spirit of community policing even without the funds to do it officially.

"Even if all the money is gone, we wanted to do problem-solving; that is what community policing is all about," Edwards said.

The idea of community policing is for law enforcement to explore neighborhoods and work with local groups to make an area safer over the long haul by improving housing or the local environment – not just tracking down robbers or car thieves. But federal budget cutbacks have greatly reduced the availability of officers assigned to community policing in San Diego County and elsewhere.

Like Edwards, other community policing deputies in unincorporated areas of San Diego have been assigned to patrols because of tight budgetary constraints, officials said.

"Now, the backbone of patrol is answering calls for service," said sheriff's Lt. Mike McNally.

But McNally said some units within the department "intend to keep the COPS philosophy alive as part of our department's goals, not only in patrol, but detective and traffic units." COPS stands for community-oriented policing programs.

In the 1980s, San Diego was among the first cities in the nation to establish community-oriented policing, then widely known as "problem-oriented policing." The concept was widely praised as an effective method for crime control and generated similar programs throughout the nation.

The federally funded community-oriented policing programs began in the 1990s during the Clinton administration and were a particular favorite of President Clinton, who made sure the government spent billions of dollars annually to hire thousands of new police officers.

In 1999, the federal government spent $1.4 billion for the COPS program. But when Clinton left office, the program lost its patron and fell victim to new budget priorities. Under the 2005 federal budget, the Bush administration plans to spend $10 million to hire new officers under COPS, officials said.

The Bush administration says it wants to steer money away from COPS toward first responders in terrorist attacks.

While San Diego has received $44 million in technology support and for the hiring of 125 officers over the past decade, it hasn't received any additional funding from COPS to hire new officers in two years, city officials said.

COPS officials insist the program is not dead. They say they are continuing to work with communities to work with police in rooting out problems in neighborhoods. San Diego police officials also say they train patrol officers about the value of community policing.

Critics of the COPS program say cities have improperly used the money to put more police on the streets but haven't necessarily embraced the community concept of working with neighborhoods.

"In some ways, it wasn't bad the budget was cut because some police departments weren't using the money for the community but instead raising the number of officers on the street," said Bonnie Bucqueroux, a community policing expert at Michigan State University.

Hubert Williams, former police director in Newark, N.J., and head of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C., organization that studies police practices, said reduced crime rates can be attributed to community policing.

"It is a very popular program, and no one wants to see it go," Williams said.

After recent shootings at the Meadowbrook Apartments in San Diego, Police Chief William Lansdowne went to the neighborhood and vowed to crack down on the violence, which included the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy.

While the city's top cop was there, officials said there was the usual talk of taking names, making arrests and patrolling neighborhoods in the Bay Terraces area.

But there was something else: Some police officials have suggested tearing down a wrought-iron fence that surrounds the 444-unit complex on Paradise Valley Road, which had been seen as a dividing line between the apartments and criminal elements, a police spokesman said.

The fence has made it more difficult for police to hunt down suspects and respond quickly to calls.

By looking at the fence, the housing conditions and other areas outside the crime scene, Lansdowne and other city officials said they were embracing the concept of community policing.

"We assured them we want to protect their safety, but we want to work together," said Lansdowne, referring to the community residents.

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