More cops on what beats?

December 16, 1993

President Clinton says fighting crime is "at the forefront of [his] domestic agenda." Bob Dole challenges Bill Clinton to agree with him on every line of the Senate-passed crime bill. Rep. Charles Schumer and Sen. Alan Simpson debate each other on whether the House and Senate really want a bill or just an issue. Some big city police chiefs appear on national television and express a lack of enthusiasm for Congress' stated determination to help them put "100,000" more cops on the streets. What's going on here?

Politics, for one thing. Democrats and Republicans alike know that their constituents want tougher crime laws -- which don't necessarily mean the same thing to all people. Representative Schumer and Senator Simpson, for example, have quite different views on gun control and limits on post-conviction appeals, among other things, which means compromise is difficult. Similarly the Senate minority leader knows there are parts of the Senate bill that the president would rather not have to sign into law.

But what about the police chiefs? Are they playing politics, too? No, they've just got around to reading the fine print in those congressional bills promising federal aid to hire more officers. For example, the section of the House-passed bill titled "Community Policing; Cops on the Beat" spells out that cities have to come up with most of the money to hire those new cops. That is money most cities don't have.

House and Senate bills spell out formulas for federal aid that require cities to put up at least 25 percent of the cost of new hires the first year of the program, then an increasing percentage thereafter. The federal share drops to 0 percent in five or so years. Suburban police forces are more likely to be able to afford such cost sharing.

And the legislation is skewed to help them. It requires "preferential consideration of applications for grants" in which the locality offers to contribute more than the minimum match required. In other words, if Baltimore City could scrape up 25 percent of the cost of 100 extra cops for a year, Baltimore County would likely get more federal aid by coming up with a 30 or 40 percent match.

Baltimore County, of course, has crime and could reduce it with more police officers. But it isn't the criminal activity of the Baltimore Counties of the nation that is the real problem. About 7,500 crimes of violence were reported to the police in Baltimore County last year. About 22,000 were reported to the police in Baltimore City. Which jurisdiction needs extra cops on the beat more?

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