Recession continues to limit, cut police services

By Kevin Johnson
USA Today

WASHINGTON — The recession is altering local law enforcement in the U.S. by forcing some agencies to close precincts, merge with other departments or even shut down.

Once largely spared from the deepest budget cuts, some police departments are struggling to provide basic services, police officials say.

"For the first time, because of the economy, police departments ... may have to change how they do business," says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank. "People will see a change in the basic delivery of services," from longer police response times to a dramatically reduced police presence in some communities.

Harlan Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said political leaders are "choosing whether they keep the streets open or the police on patrol," though it's too early to tell whether the changes will increase crime.

The Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus plan gives about $4 billion to local law enforcement, including $1 billion to hire and retain officers. But the hiring money has not been distributed, and applicants have requested more than is available.

Among the recent cuts:

*In Pennsylvania, 19 suburban and rural police agencies have closed in the past 15 months, and seven others have cut patrols. The "unprecedented" closures and cuts have forced the state police -- who face their own budget struggles -- to assume full or partial public safety responsibility for about 54,000 more people, says Lt. Col. Lenny Bandy, deputy commissioner of operations for the state police.

*In Minnesota, nine small police agencies have closed in the past five months, leaving sheriffs' departments to protect the public. The Elko New Market Police Department was briefly the 10th shuttered agency, until residents last month demanded that the City Council reverse its 2-week-old decision to eliminate it. "A lot of people felt that we were sending a potentially dangerous public message ... without a police department," says Mayor Jason Ponsonby, who opposed the closure.

*In Portland, Ore., police are consolidating operations by eliminating two of five patrol precincts. Portland police spokesman Greg Pashley says some residents fear response times will rise and established officers will be replaced by others who are unfamiliar with local problems. He says the move, which takes effect in June, was needed to cut costs, but he believes it will not compromise safety.

*In Southern California, Indio and its neighbors Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City and Beaumont have merged some key functions and also plan to combine dispatch operations to increase efficiency. "It's the legacy of the budget crunch," Indio's Capt. Richard Banasiak says.

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