August 2000

HEADLINE: Officer Laptop : do we really need more cops?


Bill Clinton campaigned for president with the promise to put 100,000 new cops on the streets. With a law enforcement officer on every block, he said, Americans would feel "freer from fear." When Congress made the initiative part of its 1994 crime bill, Clinton extolled the men in blue, saying "there is simply no better crime-fighting tool to be found."

Despite $9 billion in federal spending, the 100,000 cops never materialized, at least not in a form you would recognize. Federal money flowed into Community Oriented Policing Services and a program known as Making Officer Redeployment Effective. According to a Department of Justice report on the latter, 78 percent of the police departments audited could not show that federal aid resulted in more cops on the street.

Grants to the Washington, D.C. police department would have allowed the recruiting of 781 additional officers, but not a single new cop was hired. We can understand its reluctance. Washington is still recovering from a burst of hiring in the early Nineties, when the city took on 1000 new cops. Some 25 percent of those officers have since been discharged for misconduct or indicted for criminal activity.

Nassau County, New York received $26 million and was credited with hiring 327 new cops. A Department of Justice audit found the county actually reduced its force by 218 officers.

So how was the money spent? The Justice Department report discovered that more than 40,000 of the 100,000 new cops weren't even cops. In Little Rock, Arkansas 42 of the 82 new cops were "equivalents in technology." The town used the money to buy laptop computers. The Omaha, Nebraska police department received credit for hiring 72.8 new police officers, though the $2.8 million grant was used for laptops and civilian hires.

When the money was spent on human cops, the results varied. New York City grabbed $425 million and went on a binge, hiring an additional 6127 officers. The city's murder rate dropped from 983 in 1996 to 633 in 1998; auto thefts fell from 60,380 to 44,056. Observing recent events in New York, one might conclude that the drop in crime resulted from the style of policing rather than the number of new police. How many cops does it take to kill an innocent immigrant, or to torture a suspect with a broomstick?

Justice Department statistics indicate that crime nationwide fell 27 percent between 1993 and 1998. Many criminologists attribute the decline to changing demographics and a strong economy, not beefed-up police forces. The Chicago Tribune examined grants to the nation's 50 largest police departments. The newspaper found no correlation between the growth in number of officers and crime rates. But not for lack of trying. The Tribune noted, "In Johnstown, Ohio, officers stop motorists on any pretext, including having too much snow or rust on a license plate."

They should consider themselves lucky. Before we hire more cops, we should reconsider what laws they will enforce. Are the new police officers merely shock troops in the war on drugs? According to the American Bar Association, drug arrests rose 73 percent between 1992 and 1998. Nearly 700,000 people were busted for marijuana violations in 1998--that's more people than were arrested for murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault combined.