Base Budgets on Analysis, not Anxiety

January 31, 1994

Howard County administrators are trying to sell the idea of beefing up the county's police force, even though statistics show that crime in suburban Howard has declined. To suggest that proposed additions to the police force need careful analysis may be swimming against the current of popular opinion, but they do, if for no other reason than the waning crime rate.

During the first nine months of 1993 -- the last period for which data is available -- the county's crime rate decreased 5.2 percent. Rapes and murders were down 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively; assaults rose a modest 1.3 percent.

County officials want to include $675,000 in the police department's proposed budget for fiscal 1995, which would add 20 officers to the force.

Last year, the county hired 39 new officers after a lengthy hiring freeze. Twenty-seven of those officers filled existing vacancies; the remaining 12 helped boost the department's

authorized-strength level to 297. A few of the 20 proposed officers would be used to fill other vacancies, usually resulting from retirements.

While officials concede that the crime rate has dropped, they argue that the number of service calls -- for everything from domestic disputes to traffic problems -- has increased 5 percent in the last year and is taxing the force.

Still, with many departments competing for a piece of the county pie, and big bills looming for the clean-up of landfill contamination, every allotment must be carefully considered.

A similar situation existed last year, when officials wanted to add $510,000 to the $7 million spent on renovating the county detention center. Jail officials said they needed the extra money for improvements to the center's maximum-security wing, but they had no data to support the supposed need. The County Council approved the funding but never asked the tough questions.

This time, the questions need to be asked. Council members need to get a true picture of how the department intends to deploy new officers, and whether alternatives exist that would require fewer dollars. The heightened anxiety over violence -- some of it justified, some of it being hyped by politicians -- should not be the basis for possibly unnecessary expenditures.

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