By Don Babwin
CHICAGO — As hundreds of jobs in Chicago's police department go unfilled, officers who once patrolled the streets with partners are riding alone in what some cops bitterly call "rolling coffins."
In a Pennsylvania town that disbanded its three-member police force, Anita Gricar worries that officers from the neighboring town won't come fast enough if she calls for help. She also misses the comfort that came from having officers who knew everyone and everything about Versailles, Pa., population 1,700.
"They knew your house, they knew when your tomatoes are red," Gricar said.
This is what the nation's economic crisis looks like in law enforcement. As tax revenue shrivels, police agencies that for years were bulletproof when it came to funding are tightening their belts. Some worry that criminals will take advantage of the situation.
"There are consequences for every cut that is made. With the recession, people out of work, criminal offenses are going to go up ... immediately," said Steve Dye, an assistant police chief in Garland, Texas, and an International Association of Chiefs of Police official.
Exactly how many officers are losing their jobs and how many positions are going unfilled are unclear. But one after another, departments are telling the International Association of Chiefs of Police that officers are being laid off or taking furloughs, positions are being left vacant, and police forces are closing or consolidating.
"I've been in law enforcement for 25 years and if you would have talked about laying off policemen, people would not have believed you," Dye said.
The cuts come as police departments are being asked to take on more responsibilities, such as investigating domestic terrorism, said John Firman, director of research for the police chiefs association.
There is some help on the way, in the form of federal stimulus money, but the need may far outstrip the aid. For example, the $1 billion that the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services received to hire officers nationwide is less than one-eighth of the money agencies requested, said Fred Wilson, director of operations at the National Sheriffs' Association.
In the Southern California community of El Monte, dominated by huge car dealerships, the police department laid off 17 of its 148 officers as three of the dealerships went under and sales at the others plummeted, reducing the town's tax revenue.
In Chicago, with a police force of about 13,000, the number of vacancies has climbed to more than 400 since January 2008 because the department is not hiring to keep up with the number of officers who leave. The city could be down 800 officers by the end of the year, said Mark Donahue, president of the police union.
The danger of one-person squad cars was seen last summer in Chicago when Officer Richard Francis, riding alone, responded to a disturbance involving a mentally ill woman. During a struggle, the woman allegedly grabbed Francis' gun and killed the 27-year veteran.
"On calls like the one he was responding to at the time, they are being put at risk in one-man cars," Donahue said.
Also, more cops are being attacked on the streets, and police say that is because they can no longer flood the scene with officers when they respond to a call. The number of incidents of battery against a police officer in Chicago rose from 2,677 to 3,158 between 2007 and 2008, according to department statistics.
In Broward County, Fla., Sheriff Al Lamberti worries that attacks by inmates on deputies and each other will increase because he must lay off 68 of his 1,500 jail deputies. In addition, 100 civilians are being laid off at the county's jails, which house about 5,000 people.
In addition, he has eliminated jail programs that, among other things, help inmates overcome addiction and stop beating their kids.
"We are at the point where we are literally out of options," Lamberti said. "I never thought in a million years this would happen."
In El Monte, layoffs forced the department to shut down programs such as one in which officers served as mentors to young people likely to get into trouble.
"Now we're going to be responding when a kid slaps his mom instead of having him in a program where they can teach him to respect his parents," said Lt. Charles Carlson.
In Kansas City, Mo., only 45 police officer jobs have gone unfilled, but there is a very real possibility that the 31 cadets scheduled to graduate in August will be laid off before they can even start work.
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"And we may not be able to have another academy class until 2011," said Maj. David Zimmerman.