Police Aid: No Match, No Strings

April 17, 1994

As the House of Representatives debates the omnibus crime bill, one aspect is at last getting the attention it deserves: the section providing federal aid to hire more local police officers. Widely touted as a way to add 50,000 officers to the nation's police forces (100,000 in the Senate version; which House leaders say they will later accept), in reality the crime bill would provide local governments only part of the money needed -- and only for a short period of time.

That is why the U.S. Conference of Mayors is urging President Clinton and congressional leaders to waive the local matching funds requirement for cities with what Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville (president of the conference) calls "aggrieved financial conditions."

A discretionary waiver exists in the Senate-passed version of the crime bill, but, as we have said before, it would be politically difficult for an administration to give big cities waivers but not big suburbs. The best way to deal with the politics of this is to write legislation that requires federal aid to be based on localities' tax burden and crime rate. In that way, most of the dollars would go where the cops are most needed -- in strapped, dangerous cities. Obviously a Baltimore, with the highest property taxes and the highest index of crime in the state, would fare better under such a formula than, say, a Howard County.

One of the most outspoken advocates of giving big cities a break is Houston Mayor Bob Lanier (who has greatly reduced crime by increasing spending on police). "We and other cities are just short of funds," he says.

Houston's approach to fighting crime (down 23 percent in three years) is based in part on paying more overtime. That is the least costly way to have more cops on more beats more hours. If federal funds could be used for overtime, that would not only be a more efficient use of the money, it would also be the quickest way to escalate the war on crime -- no waiting while additional police officers are recruited and trained.

Three years ago, Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire (now retired) proposed that federal anti-crime dollars be given directly to local governments based on the size of their police forces, no match and no strings. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware said it might be even better to make such grants only to "the worst crime areas." We like both ideas (especially the latter) and urge the state's House members to propose them. It is, of course, in the suburbanites' best interest to have Baltimore become a safe place again.

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