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Cops on the Dole

By Joseph D. McNamara

Wall Street Journal - January 15, 1996

During my 35 years in law enforcement, I found that police officers were unabashed conservatives, vigorously denouncing welfare and other government handouts. Yet too often cops display a liberal, big government mentality when it comes to their own funding.

A small example of this mindset can be found in the latest newsletter from an association of retired New York City police brass. The retired police supervisors were unhappy that under the Republican plan the "annual premium for Medicare would nearly double from the present $46 to $90 by the year 2002."

Keep in mind that patrol officers now make approximately $65,000 a year in New York City and that top executives receive at least twice that. After 20 years of service, cops retire at half pay and with generous medical benefits. Many (like me) then go on to second careers. It's revealing that even an affluent bunch of retired cops is ready to sell out their conservative ideology for $44 over six years.

So it should hardly be surprising that when the stakes are higher, the cops are willing to support a law enforcement policy run out of Washington. Recall how many times last year you saw President Clinton denouncing crime while standing in front of ranks of uniformed cops gathered from around the country. These cops were lending their support to President Clinton's plan to spend billions in federal money to hire 100,000 more police officers around the country. Now, we don't hear many of these officers speaking up for the House passed Republican crime bill, which would offer "block grants". instead of money earmarked for a specific number of officers.

In fact these high-ranking police officers appear to be backing a program destined to do little, if anything, for their stated mission-reducing crime. When even champions of the status quo like the police are turning to the welfare state, it is a dire warning to the Republicans to stay with "block grants" and not yield to the Clinton administration's quest for to pay for 100,000 more police with federal funds.

Empirical evidence suggests that anticrime legislation emanating from Washington has done little more than create a fiscal crisis for state and local governments forced to build more prisons and hire more judges, prosecutors, public defenders and prison guards.

From 1982 to 1992 total government expenditures for the justice system increased by 162%. However, federal justice expenditures increased by 291% while municipalities increased justice spending by only 115%. These enormous increases occurred even before President Clinton's $33 billion dollar crime bill passed last year. Crime has declined during recent years but most of that decline is due to changing demographics, not to higher spending.

The biggest increases occurred for i prison expenditures. Long mandatory sentences passed by Congress caused a 549% increase in the amount of tax dollars spent to lock people away in federal prisons. As a former policeman, I applaud seeing murderers, rapists, robbers and other violent criminals locked up. Alas, more than 60% of the inmates in federal prisons are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Many are there for drug crimes, even though putting them behind bars has not led to any diminution in drug trafficking or drug use. Instead, clogging the justice system with drug offenders allows a number of violent criminals to fall through the cracks and go on hurting people.

Policing has always been a local business. Despite the publicity given to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are only 11,000 FBI agents compared with 600,000 local police. Some police departments need additional officers. Others are poorly managed and wasteful. It is still common in many cities to see police stations full of cops who should be on the streets. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton has shown that simply redeploying existing officers, and instituting new management techniques, can help reduce crime.

But when money comes from Washington, there is little or no incentive for local governments to engage in the kind of priority-setting needed to effectively combat crime. During the 18 years that I spent as a police chief, I found that a locally elected city council would balance my requests for more officers with other needs. The police and other city departments were judged on how personnel were used and whether citizens had gotten the kind of service they deserved. At times it was painful, but this kind of local competition serves taxpayers a lot better than getting funny money from Washington.

That message doesn't seem to have gotten through to a lot of my former colleagues in law enforcement. Thus we see cops traipsing off to Washington to serve as props for President Clinton's photo ops. (How can they afford this, anyway, if they claim they don't have enough money to combat crime?) We also see retired cops bellyaching about the Medicare cutbacks mentioned earlier. Instead of crying for more help from Uncle Sam, police executives should ask Washington to take less in taxes from localities to allow cities to hire and use police according to local needs and not based on some grand plan from federal bureaucrats.

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