WASHINGTON - With murder and other violent crimes on the rise in many American cities, local law enforcement agencies and elected officials are battling to stave off $1.1 billion in federal funding cuts proposed by President Bush.
There's no question that violent crime is up sharply. Murders and non-negligent manslaughter increased 4.8 percent nationwide in 2005, the largest jump in 15 years, according to a preliminary FBI report in June. Murders were up over 2004 rates by 76 percent in Birmingham, Ala., 44.1 percent in Charlotte/Mecklenburg County, N.C., 42 percent in Kansas City, Mo., and 38 percent in Cleveland.
At the same time, the Bush administration is cutting grants for state and local crime-fighting programs on the grounds that they've outlived their usefulness or under-performed. One such program is COPS, a Clinton-era initiative originally designed to hire 100,000 police officers nationwide.
Like many local law enforcers and crime analysts, Greenville, S.C., Police Chief W. L. Williams disagrees with the Bush administration's reasoning. His department received a $4.47 million COPS grant in May to improve radio communications so that police, fire and other emergency agencies in four counties can speak to one another. That fixes a glaring weakness exposed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"COPS is working," Williams said of his department's grant. "This is a huge step for law enforcement in the state of South Carolina and something that could not be done on our own."
That's a local example of a national problem. Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who chaired the bipartisan commission on the Sept. 11 attacks and made recommendations to prevent more of them, called the federal government's failure to solve such communications problems among emergency-response agencies a "scandal." Last December, his panel gave the White House and Congress an "F" for failing to adequately address this issue.
Some experts say that declining federal grants for crime-fighting could be contributing to the rise in crime. But they note that other factors are probably involved as well, including a generation of criminals incarcerated in the 1980s and `90s that is now returning to the streets.
"It is true that the federal support for local law enforcement and preventive programs has plummeted," said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "I think that matters. I would say that's not the only thing going on, but it does hurt."
Senior lawmakers in Congress agree.
"The Bush administration has repeatedly cut federal funding for law enforcement, and I don't think the rise in violent crime we've seen recently is a coincidence," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a written statement. "Because of these shortsighted budgeting decisions, the Bush administration has effectively abandoned our front-line defenders against crime and terrorism."
In his fiscal 2007 budget, Bush asked for $19.5 billion for Justice Department discretionary spending, an 8 percent decrease from fiscal 2006. About $1.1 billion of the cuts would come from funds for grants to state and local law enforcement.
Administration officials labeled several programs as obsolete or underachieving, including the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, a crime-fighting grant program for states; the COPS Law Enforcement Technology Grants, which provide funds for police agencies to modernize equipment; and the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants, which support efforts to stem youth crime.
"Federal law enforcement funds need to be spent where they are most effective, and (those programs) have failed to demonstrate significant effectiveness," said Scott Milburn, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. "Since 2001, Congress has worked with the administration to reduce their funding and redirect funds to other, more effective efforts."
State and local police departments are in a tug-of-war for federal dollars with federal homeland security programs, some experts contend.
"Everything is going to homeland security," said David Jones, executive director of the North Carolina governor's crime commission. "Our position is, homeland security begins with hometown security."
Facing intense lobbying from groups such as the National Sheriff's Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, many lawmakers in Congress are working to increase federal funds for local law enforcement.
Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee expressed "disappointment" that the White House would ignore "the largest increase in violent crime in the United States since 1991" and slash funding for state and local law enforcement.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., included $537 million for the COPS and Byrne Justice Assistance Grants in a big spending bill. The full Senate is expected to vote on it next month. The House of Representatives passed its bill containing $545 million for local law enforcement in late June.
OMB's Milburn said that federal grants account for only 1 percent of state and local law enforcement funding, with the rest coming from states and municipalities.
But with violent crime on the upswing, every penny counts, says Blake Wallace, sheriff of Duplin County, N. C., a largely rural locality about 60 miles southeast of Raleigh.
Wallace frets because his department's federal grant money is rapidly running out as his 75 deputies combat crystal methamphetamine labs and an escalating gang problem fueled by an influx of illegal immigrants.
Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, an ultra-violent Salvadoran gang, has opened shop in the 55,000-resident county, leaving graffiti on buildings and a brazen, daylight execution-style murder for Wallace to solve.
Wallace's department operates on a $5 million budget, which also pays for the jail. He said his department received $520,000 in COPS grants over the past five years, but that's all gone. A $1.2 million federal Highway Safety grant expires in October.
"For a department our size, the federal grants are vital," Wallace said. "We need all the help we can get: We're dealing with things we weren't dealing with five years ago."
© 2006 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources