VIEWPOINT/Local law enforcement is getting robbed
Police departments have long been adept at doing more with less, but how much more can they do with nothing? In its proposed budget for 2003, the Bush Administration is redirecting $1.2 billion in Department of Justice grants, which, among other things, eliminates COPS funding for local law enforcement hiring. If adopted, the cuts would come at a time when, more than ever, local governments need to bolster their law enforcement resources.
Launched in 1994, COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) provides grants to local governments for hiring police officers, training personnel, purchasing equipment and implementing technology. Since its inception, the program has funded the hiring of more than 119,000 police officers, including 5,000 for schools. If the Bush Administration has its way, the COPS budget will be reduced 80 percent — $600 million — and remaining funds will be authorized for purposes other than hiring.
At best, the cuts are painful but necessary incisions to help fund the War on Terror. At worst, they indicate a willingness to pursue homeland security at the expense of hometown security.
In truth, by redirecting the COPS budget, the administration is only robbing Peter to pay Paul. If homeland security is strengthened at the expense of community policing, nothing is gained.
That sort of short-sightedness was evident in April when Attorney General John Ashcroft floated the notion that local law enforcement agencies would be given the authority to arrest illegal immigrants for civil violations of immigration laws. Local law enforcement officers already can arrest illegal immigrants for criminal violations such as crossing the border without visas; however, a 1996 Justice ruling precludes them from arresting for civil violations such as overstaying visas.
What was Ashcroft thinking? Forget for a moment what visa arrests would do to relations between police and residents in immigrant communities. The attorney general presumes that, in addition to producing terrorism response plans, training for first response to biological/chemical/weapons attacks, overhauling communications systems, manning airports and … oh, by the way … patrolling communities, local police departments can spare officers to track down illegal aliens.
Frankly, I am more concerned about facing a home intruder than I am about crossing paths with a foreign student whose visa has expired. If forced to choose between putting a police officer on Main Street and putting one on the Immigration Trail, I would choose the former.
Cities and counties should not have to make that choice. For them, homeland security has as much to do with protecting residents from everyday crime as it does with protecting them from terrorism. To man all fronts, they will have to hire. What a time to handcuff COPS.