The Magazine

Crime's Up

An old issue is about to resurface.

Jun 18, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 38 • By ELI LEHRER
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Although federal funding for cops has also declined a great deal since President Bush took office, police haven't faced a total cutoff. On one hand, police groups frequently observe that the budgets of the two major Department of Justice programs that help local police--the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Office of Justice Programs (OJP)--have seen funding declines of 75 percent and 70 percent respectively under Bush. On the other hand, a bevy of new homeland security grants more than make up the difference theoretically in total funds available to state and local governments for law-enforcement tasks.

For at least three reasons, however, these new grant programs have proved less useful for police. First, while the 1990s saw police grants distributed largely on a competitive basis--expert panels reviewed proposals and funded those judged best--the homeland security money flows largely as population and density-based block grants, with states taking 5 percent off the top for "administrative costs." As a result, particularly needy agencies find it hard to get more than the federal formulas specify. Second, fire departments, disaster management agencies, and others compete for the same pot of money. Third, the nature of the homeland security grants makes it easier for police agencies to use the money for personnel than for equipment.

While nobody in policing seems to like this system, the best police chiefs have figured out how to work it. William Bratton, who created the mechanisms that led to New York City's historic decline in crime, says he's managed to find adequate federal money to fund several innovative "dual use" efforts to deploy new intelligence-gathering technology and work with DNA evidence at his current job as Los Angeles's chief of police.

What, then, can explain the rise in crime? Three factors stand out: flagging federal leadership, prison neglect, and the growth of inner-city "street" culture.

More than the federal money, the best police leaders miss the sense that the federal government cares about crime and thinks about policing. The changes in the grant programs have hurt the most. Over the past two decades, New York pioneered a widely used set of police management techniques, Minneapolis pioneered a system for monitoring pawn shops, and small cities like Garden Grove, California, and Arlington, Texas, made nationally notable innovations in neighborhood renewal and training respectively. These departments all would have innovated without federal grants, but the competitive nature of federal grant programs proved vital in spreading their ideas. Since cities now get money whether or not they come up with good proposals, an important incentive to innovate no longer exists. The intellectual disengagement seems broader: While Justice Department leaders still show up at law enforcement conferences, a mass exodus of skilled civil servants (many of them former police executives) from COPS and OJP has dismantled a tremendous resource that once informally disseminated practical knowledge about policing innovations across the country.

In addition, we're paying a price for our inability to reintegrate convicts into society. Today, over 2.2 million people--including about 1 percent of all adult males--are behind bars. Each year, more than 650,000 get out. While imprisonment is well worth the money--Vanderbilt University law professor Mark Cohen has shown that a single thug left out can easily do a million dollars' worth of damage in a year--current prisons do almost nothing to break convicts of the bad habits that got them in trouble.

Programs that force prisoners to stop taking drugs, work at real jobs, and learn to read all help keep them on the straight and narrow after release. But out of "get tough" zealotry, most states have cut funding for such efforts. For the most part, modern state prisons rely on a mix of television, psychotropic drugs (more than half of prisoners have clinically diagnosable psychological problems), and racial nationalist gangs to keep order.

Efforts to deal with criminals outside of prison, particularly through probation and parole, don't get adequate support either. Through a mix of intense monitoring (random, unannounced searches) and efforts to help people in trouble with the law acquire basic job skills, places like Boston and Orange County, California, managed to make a dent in the career criminal population during the 1990s. But these programs--which blurred the lines between police and probation/parole officers and thus proved unpopular with rank-and-file police--have seen enormous declines. "They just didn't become part of standard operating practice," says Jeremy Travis, the president of New York's law-enforcement-focused John Jay College and a scholar of prisoner reentry. "They need to become part of the organizational culture."