WASHINGTON – Citing a new study by the Democratic Leadership Council, Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Tuesday said evidence is mounting that Administration budget priorities are eviscerating police forces around the country and reducing the number of first responders on duty rather than increasing them.
“It seems like every week new evidence emerges of the hardship our local first responders face in trying to meet security expectations,” Lieberman said. “Now, we have real numbers that show how the Administration’s indifference is undermining the men and women who are our first lines of defense in the war against terrorism. Put bluntly, the situation at the state and local level is getting worse, not better. It seems to me the Administration is putting our first responders last.”
Although the homeland security responsibilities of police departments have increased and crime is up, 27 of the 44 largest police departments surveyed by the DLC are facing a “cop crunch.” Most of the departments reported increased overtime, insufficient budgets, and difficulties in recruiting new officers, according to the DLC study, which was summarized in the March/April edition of Blueprint magazine and will be published in full later this Spring. Other departments were “losing experienced police officers faster than they could recruit new ones – forcible downsizing,” and a full 60 percent of the nation’s largest police forces are pulling back from, rather than gearing up for, the war against terrorism, according to the study.
The cop crunch “amounts to a reckless and dangerous hollowing out of the nation’s police forces – at just the moment when crime rates are rising and homeland security is placing new strains on the existing force,” the Blueprint article said. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, shrank by six percent between 2000 and 2002. It is now short 1,000 officers. And its workload has increased with new homeland security duties, a double digit increase in the murder rate, and a new wave of gang violence. Fire Departments around the country face the same personnel, training, and equipment shortages. A study by the National Fire Protection Association found that only 13 percent of fire departments would be able to handle a chemical or biological attack and only 11 percent could adequately respond to the collapse of a building with 50 occupants.
“The Administration has shown a demonstrable lack of leadership when it comes to giving first responders the support they need and the support they were promised,” Lieberman said. “Fixated on unnecessary tax cuts, the Administration has nickeled and dimed state and local governments to the point where the security of most Americans may be worse rather than better than it was before September 11th.”
The Administration proposed $3.5 billion to help first responders with training and equipment needs in FY 2004, the same amount it proposed for FY 2003. Significantly, that money would come at the expense of existing grant programs such as the Community Oriented Policing Services program and the Byrne formula grants – which are used for hiring new officers. Lieberman has called for $16 billion more in homeland security spending in FY 2004 than the President has called for. Of that, $7.5 billion (in addition to the President’s $3.5 billion) would go to first responders for terrorism related needs – a commitment that should come in addition to, not at the expense of, existing grant programs.
Lieberman also co-sponsored amendments to both the FY03 appropriations bill and FY04 budget resolution to increase spending for first responders and he co-sponsored the SAFER Act, which would add 10,000 new firefighters a year for seven years to fire stations around the country.