Police fear crime increase as recession saps forces

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By Tom Jackman

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 9:12 PM

Police chiefs across the country say that they are feeling the effects of the nation's economic downturn directly, with budget cuts forcing them to reduce their ranks and leading to fears that the downturn in crime will soon be reversed.

In Sacramento, beset by California's financial woes, homicides are up 43 percent this year, assaults on police are up 13 percent, and Chief Rick Braziel said he had to eliminate his vice unit.

In Phoenix, Chief Joe Harris said he does not have the funds to fill more than 10 percent of his officer jobs and knows he will not be filling any vacancies for another three years. Harris had to put 50 of his 95 school resource officers back on the streets, though school resource officers are seen as crucial tools in fighting gangs.

In Lawrence, Mass., the need to keep officers answering 911 calls forced Chief John J. Romero to eliminate the units focused on drugs, domestic violence, auto theft, insurance fraud and gangs, he said. This summer, when the cuts took effect, auto thefts immediately soared.

"It's what's happening to all police departments, I get it," Romero said, in a city of 73,000 where crime had dropped 60 percent since 1999. "But it's had a major impact on our city."

In Washington on Thursday, more than 100 police chiefs and law enforcement experts are gathering to discuss whether the economic downturn is fundamentally changing the way police departments do their jobs. The gathering is sponsored by the D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, which surveyed more than 600 state and local law agencies earlier this month and found they had sustained an average budget cut of 7 percent this year. Department budgets had increased 6 percent on average the prior year.

"For the longest time," said Chuck Wexler, the forum's executive director, "people thought that the police didn't matter, didn't affect the crime rate. Now we've seen that's not true." He said improved policing helped drive the number of homicides in New York City down from 2,200 in 1990 to 466 last year. Homicides are up 13 percent in New York City so far this year, he said.

In the District, homicides dropped from 454 in 1993 to 143 last year.

But the tactics that reduced crime, Wexler said, such as placing officers in schools, targeting high-crime areas and focusing on particular crimes, "are now being eroded, across the country."

In interviews, several chiefs said that their first priority was answering calls for service, and placing enough officers on the street means taking them from somewhere else. The Minneapolis police had to eliminate their narcotics unit, Wexler said, and the Boston police cut their bicycle and mounted patrol squads.

In Montgomery County, Chief J. Thomas Manger said he once had officers in every high school in the county. Now he has none in the middle schools and is down to nine school resource officers, who must shuttle between more than 30 schools.

"The rapport with kids is diminished, and that proved to be invaluable," Manger said. "We were preventing things from happening, we were solving crimes that had occurred. There's going to be a lot less of that."

In addition to reductions in police funding, typically one of the last places that cities and counties cut, other reductions in social service funding have added headaches for law enforcement.

In Sacramento, Braziel said, mental health services were cut for the third straight year. Inmates are being released early from prison, but without job training, since those programs were also cut. There are fewer probation officers Jobs are scarce, and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are declining, Braziel said.

"Even the people who want to do the right thing when they get out," Braziel said, "they can't. So they jump right back into where they were comfortable."

Though Sacramento had made significant crime reductions, "the trend line is starting to go back up," Braziel said.

Braziel said he is reaching out to other financially strapped departments in his region to see how they might pool resources.

Phoenix also has seen a drastic drop in crime. But Harris said if that trend reverses, he has perhaps 500 fewer officers to police a city of 1.6 million. "We won't have enough officers," he said.

In Prince William County, Col. Charlie T. Deane, chief of police, said he had to eliminate all four officers from the county's middle schools, and educational anti-gang and anti-drug programs were cut. In Fairfax County, Chief David M. Rohrer said he cut half of his crime prevention officers, who oversee neighborhood watch and training groups, and all eight of the officers assigned to elementary schools.

Manger said he had to cut his community outreach squad, which helped communicate with Montgomery County's growing Hispanic population.

Recently, in the Langley Park area, Manger said a man had barricaded himself inside an apartment. When officers eventually entered the apartment, using a "dynamic entry" device which knocks down doors with a loud bang, the man was already dead, and no shots were fired, he said.

But onlookers got the impression that officers had shot the man, Manger said, and rumors ran wild: "I've still got an entire community that thinks we killed this guy." He said his community outreach officers once would have flooded the Hispanic neighborhood and calmed fears, but now, "I don't have that . . . It really puts us at a disadvantage."

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she had not had to make significant cuts yet, though she has 100 unfilled vacancies. But the city's population continues to grow, she said, and "I'm getting a little nervous" about managing the force when the budget has dropped from $520 million to $440 million.