October 01, 2003,
The title of an article in the September issue of Washington Monthly is an eye-catcher: "Bush's War on Cops." I like to think of myself as well informed, especially when it comes to law-enforcement matters, but I confess that until Washington Monthly called my attention to it I was unaware of any such war. In reading the article I discovered the reason: There is no such war.
The article, written by Washington Monthly editor Benjamin Wallace-Wells, laments the Bush administration's attempt to de-fund one of one of the previous president's more harebrained initiatives, the Community Oriented Policing Services program, known by the handy acronym COPS. Enacted by a compliant Democratic congress in 1994, COPS promised to put 100,000 new police officers on America's streets through the granting of federal funds to local police departments. There is wide disagreement on the actual number of officers hired with these funds, but Wallace-Wells optimistically puts the figure at about 70,000, and he points out that the addition of these officers to America's police forces was accompanied by 46-percent drop in violent crime between 1994 and 2000. I'm no statistical researcher, but David B. Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation is, and he has come to the same conclusion reached by the Bush administration: The COPS program is a waste of taxpayer dollars and should be discontinued. If you so choose, you can immerse yourself in the minutiae over at the Heritage Foundation's examination of the matter. But my space is limited, so I'll concern myself only with some of the anecdotal evidence Wallace-Wells uses to criticize the president's decision.
The article opens with a description of the author's ride along with Sergeant David Wallis, of the Richmond, Va. police department. While passing a public housing project, they see street-level cocaine dealers standing out in a driving rain, their desire to engage in their peculiar brand of commerce stronger than their desire to stay warm and dry. "It wasn't always like this," Wallace-Wells writes. "Ten years ago, Wallis and a 25-officer narcotics squad cleaned out Whitcomb Court. They set up surveillance teams in the elementary school that abuts the project and staged regular raids, cops piling out of a suddenly arrived line of six, eight, ten cars to snatch all the dealers and guns they could. Within three months, the dealer pyramid in Whitcomb Court had been broken, its principals in jail and the project quiet."
This passage raises two questions: First, if the Richmond police were able to mount this type of effort ten years ago, before COPS was enacted, why are they unable to do so now? And second, if the police were to employ these tactics once again, how many minutes would it take for the dealers to make a claim of racial profiling, thereby bringing the full weight of the ACLU, the New York Times, and probably even the Washington Monthly down upon the cops' heads? In another tale from the streets of Richmond, Wallace-Wells tells of a man murdered for nothing more than jostling someone while waiting in line at an ice-cream truck, revealing the brazenness of some criminals, unthreatened as they are by an undermanned police force. But what good is a force at full strength if its officers are constrained from doing the type of police work required to keep guns off the street? If a cop had stopped and searched this man before he had a chance to shoot his victim, he and his lawyer would have claimed the cops stopped him because he was black (or whatever), and a sympathetic judge may well have put him right back out on the street.
Wallace-Wells even uses the crime issue to take a swipe at the president's decision to go to war in Iraq. The call-up of reserves for active duty fell heavily on police departments, resulting in personnel shortages in some. "The Bush administration's choice to go to war without a broader coalition," Wallace-Wells writes, "has put a huge strain on [the] U.S. military (half of the army's combat troops are now deployed in Iraq) . . . And even one cop can sometimes be crucial to a department. The lone detective in the Crystal River, Fla., police department is back in fatigues, which has seriously hampered law enforcement in Crystal River." With this Wallace-Wells goes to laughable lengths to criticize the president. This lone detective presumably takes a yearly vacation without the cost of ungoverned mayhem in Crystal River (pop. 3,485), but even if his absence did result in higher crime, do we want a president to acquiesce to the whimsical desires of such as the French for the sake of keeping this detective and others at their desks?
Yes, crime is rising in some cities, and Wallace-Wells includes Los Angeles, where murders increased by 11 percent in 2001, in a list of cities he claims were negatively affected by the president's policies. The LAPD was indeed in bad shape in 2001, but its decline had nothing to do with President Bush. Until last fall the department labored under the yoke of former Chief Bernard Parks, whose tyrannical policies had officers fleeing the LAPD by the dozens each month, leaving behind a demoralized force in which proactive police work was all but forgotten. If Wallace-Wells had obtained the latest figures from Los Angeles, he would have seen that crime has fallen since William Bratton took over as chief and revived the department, with Part I crimes down 4 percent and homicides down a remarkable 23 percent from a year ago. Indeed, if Wallace-Wells were truly interested in altering federal policy affecting crime in Los Angeles, he might advocate the abandonment of the burdensome consent decree now governing LAPD operations, the implementation of which requires the full-time attention of more than 300 officers and the part-time efforts of hundreds more.
There is much to criticize in the COPS program, but even if it lived up to the claims of its most ardent supporters the best argument against it would remain: It is unconstitutional. I know, references to Article I, Section 8 are seen as quaint by those for whom no matter is too small to warrant federal intervention. But it is the job of local governments, whether in Los Angeles or Crystal River, to deal with their crime problems, just as they did in the 200-plus years before Bill Clinton appointed himself mayor of the United States.
Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. "Jack Dunphy" is the author's nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.