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Slicing the Pie

Law enforcement agencies feel the strain of finding money and manpower for both homeland security and street patrol.

November 01, 2004  |  by - Also by this author

Increased anti-terror police presence during special events and homeland security alerts is reassuring to the public, but it drains resources at a time when many departments don’t have the money and manpower for even traditional police operations.

There's a classic argument in economics and politics called "Guns or Butter." Basically, it's about how governments must balance spending between building domestic wealth of the people and providing for their defense. Today, a similar dilemma faces American law enforcement executives. They must determine how much of their resources to devote to anti-terrorism and how much to allocate to traditional policing.

"Doing more with less." It lacks the romantic zing of the Los Angeles Police Department's fabled "To Protect and Serve," but as far as department mottos go, it's an apt description of the current state of many police agencies. The atrocities of 9/11 at once increased the need for domestic security even as the attacks compromised the economy necessary to fund that security.

No More Money

The first phase of the Iraq War alone cost $79 billion and more than $100 billion may be spent on the reconstruction of Iraq. Back at home, American cities received only a relative pittance to fund their new homeland security duties, despite being deemed the front lines of response to terrorist attacks.

Immediately after al-Qaida became an everyday word, the Bush Administration promised $3.5 billion in new funding for cities and towns to support the expanded duties and responsibilities of local police, fire, and emergency workers. Unfortunately, at the same time, the president proposed cutting $2 billion from crime prevention and public safety programs such as the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), Local Law Enforcement Grants, and Byrne Grant programs. As a result, no sector of public safety has been immune to budgetary cuts.

The reallocations of the federal dollar have had-and will continue to have-serious implications for states and their law enforcement agencies. Already, the Michigan State Police Department has seen its number of state troopers drop to 1,000, a three-decade low. And in California, the judicial system has suffered funding cuts that have resulted in personnel losses for the California Highway Patrol, state corrections officers, and numerous sheriff's departments and police departments.

Too Few Cops

If the funding crunch wasn't bad enough for most local agencies, they also face the problem of paying cops who are not locally on duty. Many military reservists and National Guard troops who work for police agencies have been called up for service in Iraq and Afghanistan or in support of the war. This worsens the budget crunch for many agencies because they pay the difference between their officers' military and police pay, and they can't afford to hire additional officers to assume the duties of cops serving overseas.

At the height of the war, military reserve units took 123 police and 17 firefighters off the streets of Chicago alone. This was a scenario repeated in cities and towns across America, with the mobilization of National Guard members and reservists sapping the ranks of many small police departments in particular. Meanwhile, with each elevated security warning came the scrambling of police officers to make sure that airports, special events, and target-attractive venues were secure. The attendant costs of many of these activations were not reimbursed to the municipalities that bore them.

Gang Bangers Vs. Taliban

With things expected to get even worse, law enforcement executives must ask themselves the "guns or butter" question: Just what should we be doing with our limited resources?

There is a fundamental difference of opinion as to where the money should be spent. Many question the dollars being allocated for anti-terrorism programs. Some point to al-Qaida's track record of hitting symbolic targets and openly doubt that their local mall might be targeted. Others point to the unpredictable nature of terrorist attacks and speculate that a terrorist attack on an Iowa mall might actually have more serious financial repercussions than one on the Mall of America.

In any event, Sgt. Jeff Scroggin of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department sums up the beliefs of many street cops when he says, "Personally, I don't feel that the threat of a terrorist striking in my patrol jurisdiction is anywhere near that of the number of gang members that continue to offer up their own version of domestic terrorism. We need cops out there more than we need cops chasing phantom Taliban at the local 7-Eleven."

Robert Chesney, a professor at Wake Forest University, recognizes the conundrum. He believes that law enforcement may unwittingly leave itself vulnerable to other threats and to criticism that it's not taking care of business. "The average person may, through the very success of counter-terrorism efforts, acquire the peace of mind to worry about other things such as traffic congestion, road rage, robberies, etc., and wonder why it takes two hours for a cop to show up in response to his call for service," he says.

All Agencies Aren't Equal

The great problem with anti-terrorism programs is it's easier to measure their failures than their successes. We know that nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11; we don't know how many lives were saved with the foiled Millennium plot.

Since 9/11, we've been lucky, according to many experts who say we are overdue for a large-scale catastrophe. Depending on when and where it happens, the responding police, fire, and medical services may find themselves ill equipped and ill trained to deal with such a mass-casualty incident.

For example, only the largest of municipalities have it within their budgets to allocate funding for WMD gear. And few of these larger cities actually have enough WMD equipment and training to cope with a major attack.

As such their commanders are frustrated by the built-in constraints of some federal anti-terrorism training grants that hamstring larger departments. If only one $50,000 grant is available per agency, then the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department with 8,000 sworn officers working from 25 stations is relegated to the same playing field as the Escalante (Utah) Police Department.

One solution to this scarcity of resources is to avail multi-agency training in WMD protective equipment, supplemented by a centralized repository of protective gear that would be readily accessible to any one of the agencies that would find itself confronted with an actual WMD event. However, this is not 100 percent practical because personal protective masks must be fitted to the user to be effective.

Chesney notes that Congress has actually increased funding and the size of the overall law enforcement money pie has actually grown since 9/11. "It's how you slice the pie [that's the issue]. We're still in a feeling out phase, trying to determine the right way to slice the pie. In the short run, it appears that the percentage of federal monies going to federal institutions is outpacing local agencies. Right now, there's an impetus to get the money into anti-terrorist programs, especially at the federal level.

"The conclusions of the 9/11 hearings will have some say as to the distribution of such money in the future. As it stands, terrorism prevention is the overriding concern for the FBI and, if that agency is also determined to be primarily responsible for domestic intervention, then the intensive reallocation of budgetary items and resources will doubtlessly have deleterious impact on other law enforcement arenas," he says.

CONTINUED: Slicing the Pie «   Page 1 of 2   »

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