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Columns : Editorial

Two Sides of the Coin

Law enforcement budgets are stretched thin, but the ingenuity of some cops won’t let them break.

November 01, 2004  |  by - Also by this author

There's an old chestnut that says the Chinese word for "crisis" is the same as the Chinese word opportunity. I'm not sure that's true. I don't speak Chinese.
But if it isn't true, it ought to be. That saying reflects the kind of Confucian wisdom that occidental peoples have long ascribed to the Chinese, something that the "Seinfeld" show once spoofed brilliantly in an episode in which everyone was faithfully taking advice over the phone from a young woman named "Donna Chang" until they discovered that she had shortened her name from "Changstein."

"Seinfeld" aside, there is definitely opportunity in crisis. They are two sides of the same coin.

Consider that some of America's greatest real estate fortunes were amassed by people who still had money during the Great Depression and scooped up land for pennies on the dollar. And people got rich in the stock market immediately after the Crash of '29. There is opportunity in crisis.

You don't have to look too far to see that there is a financial crisis in American law enforcement. As detailed in Senior Editor Melanie Hamilton's special report on "The Money Crunch," federal, state, and local governments nationwide are feeling the pinch. And when governments get pinched, cops feel the pain.

In the last few years, a variety of law enforcement agencies nationwide have laid off sworn personnel. Others have cut back on overtime. And others are operating at such low staffing levels that officers who call for backup may find themselves waiting a very long time for help.

OK. That's the crisis part. Where's the opportunity? As I see it, a financial squeeze on police budgets can lead to a variety of responses.

There is the traditional response. Case in point a proposed tax increase in Los Angeles County.

The Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department are both facing substantial personnel shortages. To make matters worse, their ranks could be thinned by cuts in state funding because, well...the state doesn't have any money either.

L.A. Mayor James K. Hahn, Chief William J. Bratton, Sheriff Lee Baca, and the county supervisors are asking voters to approve a half-percent sales tax increase. For the LAPD and the LASD, the well-publicized budget shortfalls may be an opportunity to convince voters to help them fill their ranks.

But they do have their jobs cut out for them. Both Bratton and Baca were strong supporters of one of the most hated tax increases in state history, a tripling of vehicle registration fees. That "car tax" was the downfall of Gov. Gray Davis. And anyone who was associated with it may still be on shaky ground asking for a tax increase. When it comes to their pocketbooks, voters have long memories.

I'm writing this in early October, so I have no way of knowing if the L.A. County electorate will approve the tax increase or not. You'll know the answer by the time you read this column.

Of course, not every community facing a public safety budget crunch will be able to address the matter with a tax increase. Nor should it.

There are innovative ways to stretch the existing budget and make do. That's another aspect of a crisis: people learn to improvise, adjust, and jury rig.

As Chief James Montgomery of the Bellevue (Wash.) Police Department says, "I'm a firm believer that tight financial times often are the genesis for creative ideas. If you're flushed with money, the tendency is just to sort of continue to do business as usual."

Chief Montgomery clearly believes that a crisis can be an opportunity.

And so do many of the other police executives who Police talked to for our special report. They are doing everything they can to make do.

Of course, as Bratton and Baca have learned, you can only extend your budget so far before it starts to break and a crisis is no longer an opportunity; it's just a crisis.

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