Dwindling Budgets Have Police Departments Worried

With budgets being cut across the nation, many police chiefs are concerned that crime is on the rise as a result. Guest host Rebecca Roberts discusses the economic challenges facing police departments across the nation with Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen's away. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

This past week, police chiefs and law enforcement experts from around the country met in Washington, D.C. to discuss how they've been affected by the economic downturn. With budgets being cut across the nation, many police chiefs are concerned that crime is on the rise as a result.

Chuck Wexler is executive director of the D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum - they organized this past week's meeting, and he joins me now in our studio. Welcome to the show.

Mr. CHUCK WEXLER (Executive Director, Police Executive Research Forum): Nice to be here.

ROBERTS: So, in general, how would you say the recession has affected police departments?

Mr. WEXLER: Well, I think what we found is that overall - we looked at 600 police departments and there was an average cut of about seven percent in police departments' budgets. And, you know, for a lot of people that may not seem a lot but since 90 percent of a police departments' budget is personnel, it affects police departments in different ways. And mostly that means cutting technology and cutting training, cutting overtime.

And a lot of these things are the things that have really fundamentally changed policing over the past 20 years. Going back into the '90s, at the height of the crack cocaine period, you had almost over 2,000 homicides in New York City, and today you have less than 500. So, there's been a lot of fundamental changes in how we police and a lot of that has to do with how policing has changed.

So, we're concerned with how this is impacting cities around the country.

ROBERTS: And in terms of that crime rate going down, which has been fairly universal, at least in major cities around the country, does that correspond to the number of police officers going up? I mean, is there a direct correlation?

Mr. WEXLER: It's not just how many police you have; it's how you use them. We have learned over these past 20, 25 years that accurate timely information, you can prevent the next crime. So, everything we do today is about prevention. So, what we're seeing here is if we go in the direction we've been going after this first couple of years, we do think that that's going to substantially change the quality of policing.

ROBERTS: And when these different law enforcement folks from around the country got together at the meeting, what came out of that?

Mr. WEXLER: I guess the purpose of our meeting was really kind of to look at where we are. Now, look, we're also going to have to fundamentally change. And the whole issue of pensions is a huge issue. The good part, I think, is that labor and management are going to have to work together more effectively to kind of work out some of these issues.

For example, in Oakland, California, they had to lay off 80 police officers 'cause they couldn't agree on how to close the budget gap, whereas in other cities, like in San Jose, all of the police officers took a four percent, I think, reduction and they saved them. They're not going to be able to do that every year.

ROBERTS: So, if there seems to be fairly universal agreement that the last place people want to cut is the number of sworn officers.

Mr. WEXLER: Yeah.

ROBERTS: And if the sort of easier cuts to make have already been done...

Mr. WEXLER: Right.

ROBERTS: ...what sort of creative solutions are out there?

Mr. WEXLER: Well, that's a good question. I don't know. But we do know from our survey that almost 60 percent of the departments that had cuts this year will have them again next year. I think what you're going to see is, you know, some police in some cities now say they will no longer respond to certain kinds of calls: when a citizen gets in an accident and there's no damage, no injuries, when someone's car is stolen. Certain kinds of calls, they simply will not respond to. They will ask citizens perhaps to come in. I think you'll begin to see some of that in some cities.

ROBERTS: Chuck Wexler is the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. WEXLER: Thank you for having me.

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