COPS windfall becoming a burden

City has to cover costs of officers coming off the federal payroll

May 31, 1999|By Peter Hermann and Gerard Shields | Peter Hermann and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

It looked like a windfall five years ago when President Clinton announced that the federal government would pay to put an extra 100,000 officers on streets across the country.

But now local jurisdictions are having to live up to their end of the deal by picking up the tab for officers coming off the federal payroll. For cash-strapped Baltimore, the extra protection so eagerly sought has become a burden.

"It was a good program that put a lot of new cops on the street," said city Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher at a recent budget hearing at City Hall. "But the president's office wasn't sensitive to the costs on municipalities."

Baltimore got an extra 250 police officers in a series of federal grants totaling more than $12 million since 1994. The government paid 75 percent of their salaries for three years and required that the officers remain on local payrolls for at least one year after that.

Gallagher said salaries, uniforms, guns, ammunition and everything else it takes to put these 250 officers on the street will cost the city $11.2 million in fiscal 2000 and could grow to $19 million in 2003.

Baltimore is facing a $153 million budget deficit over the next four years, and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier is warning that he might have to lay off 110 civilian workers and move street officers to desk jobs to cover the department's part of the shortfall.

Officers hired with the federal money are not allowed to fill empty patrol slots. They must be used to bolster an existing, full-strength force. Baltimore's 3,188-member department is down about 150 officers, with each district operating at about 70 percent peak efficiency.

The department is also facing the possible departure of 250 officers who may leave this summer to take advantage of a retirement incentive program. City Council members haveexpressed concern that this will result in serious shortages.

Northeast Councilman Martin O'Malley said he is worried that the department will wipe out the reinforcements granted by the federal government by allowing a similar number of police officers to retire -- reducing the department's size -- without replacing them.

Whatever happens, money is the central issue. It is not a good time, the budget director said, for the city to pick up millions of dollars in salaries for officers the city could not afford to hire in the first place. If the city does not follow through on the deal, its ability to win further grants could be hampered.

Officials at the U.S. Justice Department, which administers the grant program called Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, said few exceptions to the deal will be made. "They knew the rules going in," said spokesman Dan Pfeiffer.

The Clinton administration announced this month that it had reached its goal and funded 100,000 additional police officers. Frazier joined other chiefs at the White House ceremony.

A total of $8.8 billion has been given out by the COPS program since 1994; more than 11,300 of the country's 19,000 police agencies have used the grant money, ranging from small towns to the largest cities.

Pfeiffer said that "no major city has dropped out because of financial reasons." But he said some smaller jurisdictions "have encountered some sort of unforeseen economic stress that has caused problems," such as natural disasters or factory closings.

The government will work with localities that might have trouble, Pfeiffer said.

"There are obviously budgetary debates that happen on the local level every year," he said. "There is a long list of obligations a community has to meet, and the COPS program is certainly one of those."

Around Maryland

Police agencies throughout Maryland used the grant money to hire officers, including Baltimore County, which put 133 on its force. But the suburban department has worked the program costs into its budget.

"We always project out into the future so we can pay for the officers," said county police spokesman Bill Toohey. His department was among the first in the country to get the grants, and federal funding has run out. "We are now paying them out of general revenues," he said.

It's the same in Howard County, which hired eight officers in 1995 under the program. By 1998, all of their salaries had been absorbed into the county payroll, said Tami Bulla of the police force's planning and research department.

Baltimore's department kept applying and receiving grant money, officials said. While officers hired in the first wave five years ago are now entirely paid with city funds, the most recent hires are being carried by the federal government.

The Pittsburgh Police Department hired 100 officers with federal money from 1994 to 1996, but then stopped applying for the grants. Chief Robert McNeilly said he has instead sought other grants to improve computers for tracking crime trends for his 1,100-member department.

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