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Congress focuses on local crime fighting

Plans would fund more police, expand federal role in combating gangs.

June 06, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With violent crime on the upswing after more than a decade of decline, Congress is moving to boost federal support for local crime-fighting, which some law enforcement officials say has languished since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Efforts are underway on Capitol Hill to revive a popular federal grant program begun in the Clinton administration that helped put nearly 200,000 new police officers on the streets in the 1990s. And a bipartisan group of senators is pushing sweeping legislation to expand federal involvement in combating gang violence and increasing prevention efforts in the most gang-infested cities, especially Los Angeles.

The initiatives have yet to produce any new law and have not been endorsed by the Bush administration.

But with recently released statistics showing that violent crime increased last year for the second straight year, law enforcement officials nationwide are increasingly calling for help and criticizing an administration they say has neglected domestic crime.

"We got it right in the 1990s. We can get it right again in the 21st century," Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where he testified in favor of the gang bill. "But it is essential that the federal government reengage."

Bratton, who compared the federal government to a "one-eyed Cyclops" focused exclusively on international terrorism, was joined by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Villaraigosa has increasingly made containing gang violence a central focus of his administration.

Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, who last week announced his own crime initiatives, has consistently touted the administration's crime-fighting efforts. And he has downplayed the crime increases.

"Overall, national crime rates by historical standards are at very low levels," Gonzales said in a speech Friday at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "In general, it doesn't appear that current data reveal nationwide trends."

But the increases threaten to become a political problem for the Republican administration and may give congressional Democrats an opportunity to seize the crime issue.

The FBI's annual report, released Monday, showed violent crime up 1.3% in 2006. Murders were up in eight of the nation's 10 largest cities, with Los Angeles and Dallas recording the only decreases. The 2006 numbers come on top of a 2.3% increase in violent crime in 2005, marking the first back-to-back increases since 1991 and 1992, when crime peaked toward the end of a national crack epidemic. Before 2005, violent crime fell every year except 2001, when there was a small uptick.

The causes for decreases -- in some communities to levels not seen in generations -- are still hotly debated among law enforcement officials, politicians and social scientists.

But steady increases in the number of police officers patrolling the country's streets are partly credited.

And as federal financial support for hiring local law enforcement has stalled in recent years, critics in Congress and in law enforcement circles have increasingly placed blame for the bumps in violent crime on the federal government.

"This increase in crime in America, violent or otherwise, corresponds to the substantial decline in funding for local and state law enforcement from federal government assistance programs," the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police noted in a recent report on the president's proposed 2008 budget.

The association, one of the nation's leading law enforcement groups, criticized the Bush administration for reducing funding for two grant programs popular with local agencies, including the Community Oriented Policing Services program.

COPS helped fund nearly 200,000 new officers between 1995 and 2000 before it was scaled back in recent years, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which also concluded that the program contributed to crime declines.

The Department of Justice disputes the connection between crime rates and federal contributions to local law enforcement, noting that the bulk of law enforcement funding comes from state and local sources.

But new legislation to fund crime fighting is nonetheless picking up momentum on Capitol Hill.

A bill by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to ensure that the COPS program, which Biden worked to create in the early 1990s, again funds police hiring has passed the House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

And law enforcement groups are lining up behind legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and more than 20 other Democratic and Republican lawmakers to make more than $1 billion available to combat gang violence nationwide.

The Feinstein bill, which would commit about $250 million to prevention and intervention programs, has also been endorsed by such groups as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Big Brothers Big Sisters. It is expected to come before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.


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