WASHINGTON — During the 1990s, as the crime rate fell to its lowest levels in decades, President Clinton used a simple formula -- more cops equals less crime -- to explain that dramatic decline. His administration assisted local agencies in putting more than 100,000 additional police officers on the streets, an effort that proponents say helped reduce crime nationwide.
The arithmetic got a fresh look last month when the FBI announced that the number of violent crimes had increased nationally for the second consecutive year. The finding prompted Democrats on Capitol Hill to criticize Bush administration cuts in funding for state and local law enforcement, and to call for federal programs to again place more police officers on the beat.
On Thursday, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a presidential candidate, introduced what he called the most comprehensive anti-crime package since the 1994 crime bill -- which he also sponsored.
The legislation would reauthorize a program called Community-Oriented Policing Services, or COPS -- providing federal funding for local law enforcement agencies to hire up to 50,000 more police officers over six years. The bill would also add 1,000 FBI agents to focus on local crime-fighting.
Biden called it "a bitter irony" that the Bush administration removed criminal investigators from local communities to focus on terrorism.
"We've improved our ability to fight . . . international terrorism, but we left our communities here at home less safe from the threat of murderers, rapists and drug kingpins," Biden said.
A centerpiece of the 1994 crime bill, COPS has provided police departments with nearly $7 billion over the last decade to hire street-patrol officers. More than 109,000 have been hired.
But the Bush administration decided to take a different tack after federal audits found COPS misspending worth millions and after studies questioned the effectiveness of adding officers.
Since the 2004 fiscal year, much COPS funding has gone not to officer hiring but to such purposes as technology upgrades and methamphetamine abatement, a May report by the Congressional Research Service said. COPS offered no hiring grants this year or last year.
In 2006, violent crime increased about 1.9% from the previous year, according to the FBI.
Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin called it "too much to suggest that changes in the president's budget request is the cause of these changes."
Ablin said the president's 2008 budget called for $200 million for local violent-crime task forces, which traditionally rely on veteran officers, thus reducing the need to hire, train and deploy new officers.
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said: "The federal government really needs to understand that they can't have these one-time infusions. They have to be in it for the long haul."
In May, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill reauthorizing COPS. That measure, like the one Biden recently introduced, would make grants available to hire 50,000 more officers.
Biden introduced a similar measure earlier this year, but that legislation stalled after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) placed a hold on it. Coburn is concerned, said communications director John Hart, "that the program has gone from a Community- Oriented Policing Services program to a congressionally oriented pork spending program."
This month the Senate approved a Biden-proposed amendment to the 2008 Justice Department appropriations bill to add $110 million to COPS, enabling local agencies to hire about 1,400 police officers.
"My contention is that you can't have homeland security without hometown security," said Douglas H. Palmer, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Democratic mayor of Trenton, N.J. "What the Senate and the House are doing is putting the security of our cities as our top priority."
Some criminologists and government officials consider COPS a key factor in the record decline in crime during the 1990s. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office estimated that by 2000, COPS funding had contributed to such declines from 1993 levels.
Critics of the program call COPS a federal encroachment on local responsibilities.
"The Bush administration recognized that these programs are not the appropriate function of the federal government," said David B. Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy center in Washington.
After COPS was first authorized, Muhlhausen said, some local law enforcement agencies cut their own budgets in anticipation of federal funding, using the COPS grants to subsidize ongoing programs rather than to hire more officers.
"Crime is inherently a local problem," he said. "A one-size-fits-all approach from Washington, D.C., is not going to work well in towns and cities across America."
A study published in the February issue of the professional journal Criminology suggested that COPS spending had had little to no effect on violent crime.
Bratton doesn't buy it.
"I'm in the streets," he said. "I know what works. Cops count."