2002, the year in review:
Bottom lines — getting worse before they get better
Bowing to the reality of fiscal constraints that tied knots into municipal budgets from Boston to Anchorage this year, law enforcement agencies in 2002 were forced to endure layoffs, gaping vacancies in the ranks and cuts to cherished programs. Nor did the axe fall solely on police, with virtually every aspect of the nation’s criminal justice system being affected. Making matters worse, there is no reason to think that bottom lines and staffing complements will get any better in the year ahead.
In May, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly warned that reducing the number of officers from a peak of 41,000 to a low of 35,825, through attrition and other means, would make it difficult to maintain current enforcement levels. The department had been asked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to cut $132 million from its budget, with the prospect of further cuts to come. Kelly said the cuts would result in the postponement of a new recruit class of 2,000.
“This would be the lowest combined head count of the NYPD since July of 1993,” he said. “What we’ve seen is that resources count. The size of the department matters, and we have to keep the department strong.”
Retired Los Angeles police detectives were brought back on the job in April to help the agency reduce a backlog caused by a shortage of officers. The situation was so severe that some officials complained investigations were not being given the attention they deserved.
“The problem is that staffing levels are so low on investigative forces that we’re starting to kiss off investigations because we don’t have the officers to do them,” said Joe Gunn, executive director of the L.A. Police Commission.
Violent crime was up in Los Angeles by 16.7 percent during the first four months of the year compared to the same period in 2001, with a 46.7-percent spike in homicide, and a 13.9-percent rise in domestic violence and aggravated assault.
The department was permitted to hire back retired officers for no more than 90 days a year, and the initiative’s impact seemed both immediate and impressive. Five detectives brought back to work in the Devonshire Division were able to cut the number of backlogged cases from 400 to just a few dozen from February through April.
The Boston Police Department scrapped a plan to launch another academy class, and instead transferred 70 officers from desk jobs back to street duty. The city’s patrolmen’s union projects that 10 percent to 15 percent of officers will retire over the next two to three years.
“What they’re trying to do is cut corners,” said Thomas Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. “This is a formula for disaster. You want to know what a chief clerk does? He runs the police station. Those guys are professionals — no captain wants to lose his chief clerk.”
Nationwide, departments faced a variety of pressing fiscal issues, and dealt with them in diverse ways.
Anchorage police officials eliminated a five-officer unit that dealt with community nuisances, and returned the officers to the patrol division.
The number of take-home civilian cars from the Albuquerque Police Department was cut from 67 to 10 in January by Mayor Albert Chavez to help close a projected $20-million budget shortfall. The move was expected to save $100,000.
Portland, Ore., Police Chief Mark Kroeker eliminated 21 of 46 front-desk clerk jobs, and reduced the hours during which four of the city’s five precincts are open to the public.
In Colorado, law enforcement agencies faced the loss of a dependable revenue stream after legislation was signed in June that would allow assets to be seized only from those convicted of a felony, among other restrictions. Departments would be the last to see any money from such proceedings, behind liens, compensation for innocent owners, court and prosecutorial costs, and state drug and alcohol abuse programs.
Some departments found the lure of virtually free patrol cruisers too good to pass up, even if it meant having the cars emblazoned with advertising. In Springfield, Fla., the police chief and other local officials decided to accept the offer from Government Acquisitions LLC, a North Carolina company. Said Police Chief Sam Slay: “If we had plenty of money, I probably wouldn’t even look at it. With budget shortfalls and the need to add personnel, I kind of had to set my preferences aside.” At least a dozen departments are said to have agreed to accept the commercialized cop cars, with scores more actively discussing the idea with the company. Many other departments have publicly rejected the idea, which some see as projecting an image of police officers as “tawdry hucksters for burgers and fries.”
While the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services was spared the deep cuts threatened by the Bush administration in 2002, several cities found themselves under scrutiny for using their federal funding in questionable ways.
Federal auditors asked Dallas officials to give back $1.18 million in April, and withheld an additional $2.9 million because of a decision by the city to purchase 56 patrol cars after its 1997-1998 COPS grant expired.
Nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in COPS funds awarded to a now dissolved tribal police force was found missing in July. Officials from the Picuris Pueblo in Penasco, N.M., refused to discuss the $728,125 with federal auditors on the grounds that it was tribal business.
In Albuquerque, federal auditors informed the city in August that it could be on the hook for $7.6 million in allegedly misspent funds — a sum that includes $3.5 million city officials were expecting, and $4.1 million the Justice Department claims was used to supplant municipal dollars instead of hiring new officers.
Budget crises across the country hit the courts and jails, as well. In June, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he would cut critical programs such as the hate crimes unit, gang unit and Asian crime task force if officials did not increase his $1.6 billion by $100 million. Baca also threatened to release as many as 400 inmates.
Kentucky Gov. Paul E. Patton ordered the release of 567 nonviolent offenders as a way of trimming the state’s $500-million deficit. All of those turned loose were convicted of Class D felonies, and had an average of 80 days left on their sentences. The immediate savings was estimated at $1.3 million.
Fiscal problems are also wreaking havoc with attempts by many departments to recruit desperately needed personnel, hold on to the staff they have, or to maintain successful programs that had once seemed immune until this year’s pinch.
In Lorain, Ohio, budget constraints prevented the city from replacing 13 officers lost through retirement or resignation. The 111-member department also stood to lose two more officers — one to the FBI and a second to another local agency. Chief Cel Rivera said he would be forced to pull personnel from specialized assignments.
Fifty-four of the 110 new recruits sworn in at the Suffolk County, N.Y., police academy in April were former New York City officers, drawn by a salary that is nearly 50-percent higher.
Police chiefs in Oak Point and Crowley, Texas, hired two of 14 Irving police recruits who were fired in May for cheating on exams.
The Albuquerque Police Department reduced its mounted patrol — a fixture in the city’s Old Town section — from a dozen officers and horses to a sergeant, three patrolmen and six horses.
Two North Dakota police chiefs, Fargo’s Chris Magnus and Grand Forks’s John Packett, created a plan that would get officers out on the street more quickly by offering a shortened version of Lake Region State College’s 18-week peace officer certification course.