Federal Grant Money Drying Up for Community Cops
|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 Krausz.
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 said.
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," she said.
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.
"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."
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