WASHINGTON - Police departments, local elected officials and first responders are being asked to do more for their communities than ever: Walk the beat. Be on guard against terrorists. Secure critical infrastructures. And gather intelligence on future terrorist acts when possible.
Washington has a role in securing the homeland, but the burdens fall heaviest on our local communities.
There are more than 700,000 police officers and sheriffs in the country, compared with nearly 11,000 FBI agents. It is our local police chiefs and sheriffs who are often called on more and more to protect us against the new threats from abroad.
We had a sobering reminder this week: As President Bush braced the nation for war in Iraq, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge ratcheted our alert level back up to orange, or "high risk," and called all 50 governors to request that they provide an increased police presence at airports.
But the fight to secure our streets does not end with preventing terrorism. Crime is up again. The newest figures tell us the historic crime drop the nation experienced during the 1990s is over.
Property crimes - offenses that tend to jump in a weak economy - are rising particularly fast. The FBI recently reported a 4 percent hike in burglaries and motor vehicle thefts last year alone. And where fighting violent crime and bank robberies used to be among the FBI's highest priorities, the FBI has had to necessarily refocus its attention on counterterrorism efforts.
Increasingly, local police departments, statewide crimefighting task forces and drug-fighting projects are being told by the Bush administration that they are on their own when it comes to fighting crime.
What's worse, all of this is happening during a time of unprecedented economic hardship in our cities and states. States are facing dramatic budgetary shortfalls. A new report finds that budget gaps for state governments soared by nearly 50 percent in the past three months and state legislatures face a minimum $68.5 billion budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year.
In Maryland, the General Assembly is considering closing state police barracks in Annapolis and College Park in order to cut costs. Some of the fiscal hardships recently incurred by cities and towns are directly related to new homeland security responsibilities: Mayors nationwide report that cities spent $2.6 billion through the end of last year on new security costs.
The president has ignored mayors, sheriffs and police chiefs. Last year, law enforcement joined together to ask that the COPS program - the only program dedicated to putting more police on the nation's streets - be continued. Mr. Bush's answer? He refused to support legislation intended to continue and modernize the program. His new budget eliminates all funds for police departments. This despite a recent study's findings that COPS grants played a significant role in the crime declines of the 1990s.
The administration wants to end the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant, which was funded at $448 million for 2002. It wants to end the Byrne program, a law enforcement grant to the states for which $501 million was earmarked last year. Mr. Bush's ambiguous Justice Assistance Grant is proposed to be funded at $599.7 million, nearly half of the two 2002 programs.
Police chiefs, sheriffs and mayors will simply have to do more with less, the administration says. That is not my view. We need to keep funding programs that have proved their effectiveness, modernize those that need to be adjusted to reflect post-9/11 needs and quickly get resources to our cities and towns where they can do the most good.
Securing the homeland means keeping our hometowns safe, and that means providing local law enforcement officers with the tools they need to protect our neighborhoods. To do anything less would be a crime.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., the senior senator from Delaware, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Corrections and Victims' Rights.