Putting cops on the wrong beats

October 18, 1994

We had misgivings about the "100,000 cops on the beat" crime bill, but we supported it in part because of the very helpful and urban-oriented prevention programs and in part because Attorney General Janet Reno promised that "community circumstance" would determine where the federal funds to pay for more police officers would go. By "community circumstance" she meant the amount of violent crime and the local tax burden. Federal dollars would go where both were high. Sounded like Baltimore and other big cities to us.

So where did the first grants go? Twenty-two went to big cities. Forty-six went to medium-sized communities. Three hundred twenty-four went to places with less than 150,000 population. Of that last number, 150 went to places smaller than 25,000 population and 80 to places smaller than 10,000 population.

Maryland's grants were distributed in a way that mocks community circumstance. The state got $4.8 million, President Clinton and Ms. Reno announced last week. Baltimore City got none of that (although the city had gotten federal aid earlier under another law enforcement program). Montgomery County, which had one-ninth the number of reported violent crimes in 1992 as Baltimore City and has far greater wealth and a much lower tax burden, got nearly half of that. Baltimore County, which had about a third as much violent crime as the city in 1992 and also has a lower tax burden, got most of the rest. The remainder went to places not often thought of as pits of crime and high taxes -- such as, for one example, Berlin (pop. 2,616), which hasn't had a murder in more than 12 years.

To get a grant, a community must come up with a 25 percent matching contribution. The Berlins and certainly the Montgomery Counties are better able to raise their match than are the Baltimore Cities. So the crime bill discriminates against the communities most harmed by crime. The law does allow the attorney general to waive a local contribution in hardship situations. We got the impression from Ms. Reno when she was in town last spring that she would be inclined to do that for big cities. But officials at the U.S. Conference of Mayors say they've been told not to count on it.

The new law discriminates against Baltimore in another way. It limits the federal grant to $25,000 per officer per year. Adding a 25 percent match to that may pay for an officer in Berlin, but it sure won't here. (Montgomery County can afford to match above the 25 percent level.) The law does allow a police force to use its federal aid to pay for the equivalent of a new cop on the beat. We think that means overtime, new technology, etc. We hope Ms. Reno will be generous and liberal in interpreting this part of the law, because it is probably the only way Baltimore is going to get a real benefit.

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