Jan. 27, 2009 -- Across the country, the money crunch has gotten so severe that police departments, which are usually the last targeted for budget cuts, have started to feel the economic hard times.
The results of a survey of 233 major police and sheriff's departments released to ABC News show that cities are resorting to law enforcement hiring freezes, potential layoffs and overtime cuts as means to push back against budget crises.
With tax dollars drying up from a devastated auto industry, city officials in Pontiac, Mich., have slashed their police force by two-thirds in recent years. Phoenix, facing a budget deficit of $270 million, might delay filling 250 vacant police officer positions.
Atlanta has cut police salaries by 10 percent by shaving four hours off the workweek of every officer -- including the chief.
"We have been furloughing each and every police officer on our department including myself. We work 36 hours a week now, which equates to a 10 percent reduction in pay. And it also equates to a 10 percent reduction in resources on the street," Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington told ABC News. "We have 10 percent less manpower on the streets of Atlanta, and that's broken down 24 hours, seven days a week."
And the story in Atlanta is echoed throughout the communities surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that researches law enforcement issues and analyzes public policy.
27 percent of departments have implemented a hiring freeze for police officers.
12 percent are considering layoffs or forced retirements.
49 percent have reduced or eliminated funding for technology updates.
61 percent of departments have cut overtime, which is often used to boost police presence in high crime areas.
"We've already cut our overtime expenditures in half in the last three months," Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis told ABC News. "So already, we're seeing a reduction in the number of officers that are out there on the street, simply to try to stave off layoffs. We're doing everything that we can within our budget to stay away from layoffs, but we don't know if we're going to be able to do that."
Cuts Threaten Recent Drops in Crime
Police say the cuts in overtime, manpower and other resources threaten to undermine hard-fought gains in reducing crime and might worsen matters in neighborhoods still struggling with spikes.
"You need people out on the street, you need police visibility, you need police officers doing problem solving in the neighborhoods and connecting with the community," said Davis. But with the Boston Police Department looking to trim 10 percent of its budget, jobs are in jeopardy.
"When your budget is comprised mostly of personnel, there's no way to look at that kind of cut without looking at laying off bodies," Davis said. "And it's tragic, because we've made great progress."
Some departments in the survey are already seeing spikes in property crime.
"In certain kinds of crimes like robberies, larcenies, thefts from autos, we are already seeing increases in crime in a number of cities," said Chuck Wexler, the research forum's executive director. "But also, the fact that when we did have increases in crime, police were able to put cops on the dots, police where they were needed, and really make a difference."
There is no national trend upward yet, but some police chiefs worry about the long-term forecast for crime if the cutbacks continue or deepen.
"I think to say they are concerned is to put it mildly," Wexler told ABC News. "They see this time as sort of a wake-up call, for if we don't put our resources where we need it, we could see a reversal of the crime decreases we've seen in recent years."
"Well, the people in Atlanta or any community wants to see police visibility, omnipresence, because it does deter crime, it prevents crime. … Criminals usually operate in areas where they see no police," he said. "And that's what my concern is, when you start to reduce your resources by 10 percent, then the criminals know that as well, because they see less police officers, less police presence."
Will Economic Stimulus Package Help Cops?
The U.S. Senate is currently considering a $365 billion stimulus package, with a nearly $4 billion slice tagged for federal grants to state and local law enforcement efforts.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., praised the addition of the funds, noting that "preserving the ability of state and local law enforcement to protect our communities and safeguard our streets benefits us all."
Leahy contends that a commitment to providing funding for law enforcement will "preserve safer environments for our local economies to thrive."
The Senate Appropriations Committee meets to discuss the economic package today. With police chiefs watching the economy much more intensely than they ever have before, the cash injection could be a welcome boost to anti-crime efforts.
"Look, for a mayor, cutting the police budget is the last thing he or she wants to do. … Cities are doing this very reluctantly," Wexler said. "But what we are seeing is, even though police department budgets are the last thing to be cut, two-thirds of them are already stopped overtime. A third of them put a freeze on hiring, so the impact is just starting to be felt. But if we go along this road, we can anticipate that come summer, when crime starts to really increase, when you need those extra resources, is when departments and cities will really feel it."