WASHINGTON- The deployment of thousands of police officers to Iraq, Afghanistan and other military reserve posts is costing local law enforcement agencies up to $1.2 billion per year, according to a new analysis of Justice Department data.
The review, prepared for a law enforcement trade journal by Justice Department statistician Matthew Hickman, found that the number of military call-ups is outstripping the pace of new hires at a time when agencies are struggling to find new recruits, and as crime is ticking upward after several years of historically low crime rates.
The problem is particularly acute in small police agencies, which often have struggled to fill gaps in patrol coverage left by cops who have been called to military duty, according to Hickman's analysis, just published in Police Chief magazine.
"This is a serious problem since (police executives) cannot place quotas on the number of reservists in their agencies," according to the analysis, which said that about 2.2% of the estimated 683,600 full-time police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers across the nation are in the military reserves.
For his analysis, Hickman reviewed personnel in 3,000 of the nearly 16,000 police agencies across the nation for a 12-month period that ended June 30, 2003. The findings then were projected across all of the agencies as estimates of continuing annual costs to local law enforcement.
Hickman estimated that 11,380 law enforcement officers were called for military reserve service from all agencies during the time period studied, compared with gains of about 2,600 new hires.
At least 23% of all police agencies had officers called for reserve duty during that time, according to Hickman. There is no official count of how many reservists are police officers, but Hickman says the trends in military call-ups and police hiring appear to have been consistent since the period he examined. Police chiefs say overtime paid to other officers to fill patrol shift gaps accounted for the bulk of the deployment costs.
Hickman's analysis does not directly link the reservist call-ups to recent increases in violent crime in many cities. However, police chiefs such as Houston's Harold Hurtt say the impact of call-ups is being felt on the street -- even in large departments such as his that are able to absorb losses in officers more easily than smaller police agencies.
"Everybody understands the necessity to do their part for the country," says Hurtt, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of about 60 police agencies in the USA and Canada. "But this responsibility is having a noticeable impact on our ability to provide basic services. A lot of these (reservists) were people who answer calls for service."
Hurtt says many of the 25-30 Houston cops called to military duty have been notified that their service likely will be extended beyond a year. The numbers represent a tiny portion of the city's 4,800-officer force, but the call-ups have come as the department is trying to fill hundreds of vacancies caused by the retirements of 700 officers in the past two years, Hurtt says.
Police staffing is a particularly urgent issue in Houston, which took in about 200,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina last year. Hurtt says the surge in population contributed to a jump in violent crime, including a 20% increase in homicides this year. This year, the U.S. government gave Houston about $20 million to help pay police overtime and other costs related to the influx of Katrina evacuees.
Reservist call-ups have had more impact on smaller police agencies. In Pottsville, Pa., Police Chief Joseph Murton says the department lost three of its 28 officers to prolonged reserve duty during the past three years.
The deployments, which will require two of the officers to serve two years each, triggered a department-wide restructuring of patrol shifts and undisclosed overtime costs to cover the manpower shortfall. "We understand the value of freedom; we support the service they are providing our country," Murton says. "But it has been difficult. This has affected everybody in the department."
Murton says his community of about 16,500 residents, 100 miles north of Philadelphia, was making do with a decreasing police force before military call-ups. A tightening local budget has forced Pottsville's police department to cut its number of patrol officers from 35 to 28 during the past several years, Murton says.
"If I'm a manufacturing company, I can go to a temp service to fill slots I'm losing to call-ups," he says. "You can't do that in law enforcement. Our employees are required to undergo 22 weeks of training. The average employer doesn't have to face that."
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