CHICAGO - President Bush, who has served three years without vetoing a spending bill, has never wasted any political capital trying to reduce the size of the federal government. But his new budget offers one conspicuous display of political courage: proposing a drastic cut in the program that helps pay for local police.
Community Oriented Policing Services was the official name of President Bill Clinton's celebrated effort to put 100,000 cops on the streets. It was a politically savvy scheme to enlist Democrats firmly on the side of law enforcement, and it also appeared to have a dramatic, positive impact. Vice President Al Gore, noting the drop in crime in the years after COPS was enacted, claimed that all those new officers made the country "safer than it has been in decades."
Republicans, who pride themselves on being merciless toward criminals, don't usually pass up a chance to show support for our men in blue. So you'd think Mr. Bush would protect himself by going along, or even upping the ante. The symbolism looms large, and in a $2.4 trillion budget, the amount of money looks tiny.
But this is one case where he has rejected the easy option in favor of the hardheaded one. Under Mr. Clinton, annual outlays rose as high as $1.4 billion a year. But for the coming year, Mr. Bush has proposed to allocate just $97 million - which is getting pretty close to zero.
He's done that despite the risk of withering campaign rhetoric. Even before the budget came out, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, charged that Mr. Bush has "shortchanged" the program and declared, "No American should have to face rising crime in their communities."
But the administration understands the gap in Mr. Kerry's logic. It's a huge leap to suggest that a cut in COPS will mean a rise in crime. It may seem self-evident that cops prevent crime, but there's no clear connection between the number of police and the amount of lawbreaking that goes on in a given year.
Even experts who endorse the program, such as Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Alfred Blumstein, say it's impossible to know if it contributed to the falling crime rate. A report last year by the government's General Accounting Office said the evidence on this point was "inconsistent and inconclusive."
For that matter, COPS failed to meet its goal of unleashing 100,000 additional street cops. It provided money to hire new officers and to buy technology that would let departments move existing police from desk jobs to patrol duty. But beefing up the police presence nationwide is easier said than done. David Muhlhausen, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says the total addition during the Clinton years was only 57,000.
Nor does the program deserve all the credit for those. The number of police has been rising for decades and doubtless would have continued rising in the 1990s even without federal encouragement. The difference is they would have been paid for as they had been in the past - with state and local funds.
What the program has done with great success is spend money in a manner designed to gratify every member of Congress. Over the last decade, COPS has ladled out $10.6 billion to some 13,000 state and local law enforcement bodies in all 50 states and four U.S. territories. There has been no attempt to direct crimefighting resources to the places with the most crime. Instead, it has spread the cash to the needy and the not-so-needy. That gives senators and representatives the chance to brag about all the crimefighting dollars they've brought home.
The program offered to help pay the salaries of new officers for just three years. The idea was that once states and cities saw how valuable the additional manpower was, they'd want to keep them at their own expense. In fact, COPS was supposed to close in 2001, having performed its mission.
But some communities don't think the extra cops are worth the cost. New York City used COPS money to hire 4,700 new officers, reports USA Today, but has cut 3,400 in the last three years. Minneapolis hired 81, only to cut 140.
Are those wise decisions? Maybe not, maybe so. But I suspect the people in New York and Minneapolis know better than I do. So here's a suggestion: Let cities and states that see the need for more cops hire them with their own money, and let those that don't see the need cut back. And let Washington stay out of it.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.