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President to Trim Clinton's Community Policing Program

Law: Hiring initiative is seen as a key force in fighting crime. School security is at top of agenda.

March 30, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU and RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has decided to severely scale back a popular Clinton-era program that has put tens of thousands of new police officers on the streets, devoting a "lion's share" of the remaining money to school security officers in the wake of the San Diego-area shootings, officials said Thursday.

The decision, due to be unveiled next month, would mark a major departure from a federal law enforcement policy that some criminologists say helped spur a marked nationwide decline in crime in the 1990s. And it could provoke another intense confrontation between President Bush and congressional Democrats, many of whom are already lining up to defend the $1-billion Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program.

"If it gets scaled back, you are going to see the number of badges in the cities and counties drop off precipitously," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who plans to introduce legislation to save the program. The number of officers on the streets "will go down like crazy and we will have crime rates back up," he said.

The COPS program marked the cornerstone of former President Clinton's 1994 anti-crime initiative, providing municipal police departments with more than $9 billion in federal funds to help put an estimated 85,000 new officers on the streets in the six years since, according to government figures. The funds cover 75% of the salaries for three years, then the local departments pick up the costs.

Critics question whether the program has funded as many officers as claimed and whether some of the money has been wasted by bureaucratic inefficiency. But the program has proved to be popular with local politicians and police around the country. In Los Angeles, which has fewer officers per capita than any other major city, the program has furnished the Los Angeles Police Department with $235 million since 1995 to help hire more than 2,000 officers.

But Bush has not been a fan. While former Vice President Al Gore pledged during the presidential campaign to put an additional 50,000 officers on the streets, Bush said in an interview last year that he believed hiring police officers should be largely a local concern. "I view that as focus-group politics that breaches the role of what the federal government should do," he said.

With his budget proposal scheduled to go to Congress on April 9, Bush now has the chance to put those beliefs into practice, and administration and congressional sources say he is expected to make deep cuts in the program.

Although the exact figures aren't yet available, one White House official involved in the administration's discussions of the program said the upcoming budget proposal would likely provide less than a quarter of the $228 million funded in the current budget for hiring municipal police officers.

The administration has concluded that continuing the federal funding would violate the original intention of the 1994 program because it would subject the federal government to "an open-ended commitment beyond the scope that Congress originally passed," the official said.

Moreover, officials are concerned that, with unemployment low, police departments are already having difficulty filling vacancies.

But one part of the program that policymakers have determined is worth salvaging is the hiring of officers to protect schools, a program that has already funded and trained about 3,800 school officers. A Justice Department official who asked not to be identified because the plan has not been finalized said Bush's plan earmarks $180 million for school hires, a level roughly equal to the current level of funding.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said after last week's shooting at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon--the second in suburban San Diego in three weeks--that the violence underscored the importance of schools such as Granite Hills receiving federal COPS funds to protect their students.

After a gunman at Granite Hills wounded five people, an El Cajon police officer assigned full time to the school stopped the attack by shooting and wounding the assailant. Because the school had an armed officer on duty, Ashcroft said, "it meant that probably other students were not injured and not killed."

The Bush administration is convinced that putting more officers in schools should be its priority in funding the program.

"The focus of the funding, the lion's share, will be for school resource officers," the Justice Department official said.

That commitment was made weeks ago in the administration's budget planning, the official said, but "the most recent shootings [outside San Diego] reinforced that this was a good budget decision. . . . It clearly showed the benefit of having a policeman in the school."

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