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NEWS ANALYSIS : Debatable Arithmetic, Same Bottom Line in Crime Bill

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Pat Buchanan says it. On the floor of the House, Republican congressmen say it. Empower America, a conservative think tank, says it. But is it true?

Those critics of the $33.2-billion crime bill try to paint it as soft on criminals by making a mantra of the claim that the legislation would fund two social workers for every police officer.

An examination of the facts, however, shows that their calculation rests on a pyramid of questionable or flatly improbable assumptions. To reach that conclusion, critics appear to underestimate the number of police the bill could produce and wildly overestimate the number of social workers it would fund.

On the other hand, even some allies admit President Clinton’s signature claim that the bill would fund 100,000 police officers probably overstates its impact on local law enforcement. At best, that is a cumulative total: the bill aims to increase the nation’s police force by 100,000 not immediately, but over six years. Meeting even that goal would require local governments to accept substantial financial commitments to supplement the federal assistance from the bill.

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As Congress moves toward reconsidering the crime legislation as soon as this week, “facts” are flying like arrows between both sides in the bitter debate. But, as in the case of the disputed police officers, the facts are often more complex than the sharp sound bites that slice the airwaves. The pitched struggle over the crime bill shows again that, in Washington, as in war, truth is often the first casualty of conflict.

The argument that the bill would generate more social workers than police officers appears to have its roots in an Aug. 2 “issue bulletin” put out by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

In the paper, Scott A. Hodge, a fellow on federal budgetary affairs at the foundation, argues that the bill would only fund 20,000 police annually--and 40,000 social workers.

To reach the figure of 40,000 social workers, Hodge simply divides all the so-called crime prevention money in the bill--some $1.23 billion per year or $7.4 billion over the six years covered by the legislation--by the average annual salary and benefits of social workers, which he estimates at $36,000. “If all this social welfare money goes toward hiring new social workers,” he writes, “the bill will add . . . at least two social workers . . . for every cop the bill puts on the street.”

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But the legislation makes clear that not all of that money could possibly go to hiring social workers. For instance, $1 billion of the prevention money is designated for strengthening law enforcement, including hiring police and prosecutors, in cases involving violence against women.

Another $900 million goes to establish after-school programs in troubled neighborhoods. Much of that money would go for the cost of keeping schools open and paying teachers, notes one House Judiciary Committee aide. Another $40 million would go to operate midnight sports leagues.

Some programs in the bill, such as drug treatment for prisoners and grants to discourage young people from participating in gangs, clearly would produce employment for social workers. It is impossible to estimate in advance how many, said the Judiciary Committee aide, but the assumption that all the bill’s prevention funds would go toward hiring social workers “just doesn’t make any sense.”

Hodge did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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Hodge’s conclusion that the bill only funds 20,000 officers annually, which Republicans have widely echoed, also rests on a series of questionable assumptions. He estimates the cost of putting “one new cop on the street for one year in a high-crime area at between $70,000 to $80,000 per year.” Based on that, he says the cost of adding 100,000 officers would be “at least” $7 billion per year, or $42 billion over the bill’s six-year life.

Since the bill only provides $8.845 billion in federal funds for police programs, he concludes, it will only fully fund “at most just 20,000 permanent cops on the street over the next six years.”

But Justice Department officials said that the estimated annual cost for adding a police officer is wildly inflated. An International City/County Management Assn. survey last year found the median salary for entry-level police officers was $23,546. Fringe benefits might add another third to that cost, bringing the total closer to around $31,000, a department official said.

Those figures vary substantially from region to region, but even for high police-cost cities--such as Beverly Hills, Detroit, San Diego and Washington, D.C.--the total of first-year benefits and salary for a new police officer is more in the range of $50,000, according to Justice Department surveys.

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Using Hodge’s methodology, that would reduce the annual cost of 100,000 officers to about $3.1 billion, which means the federal government could fully fund more than 40,000 new officers annually by his calculations.

But, in fact, those calculations are somewhat beside the point because the legislation generally requires cities to pay for at least one-fourth of the cost of the new hires. That local contribution multiplies the federal dollars to produce more officers on the streets, proponents note.

Even so, to reach the 100,000 officers depends on another series of debatable assumptions.

The Administration reaches that total this way: of the $8.8 billion in the bill allocated to police programs, $7.34 billion is designated specifically for hiring new officers. The rest goes to training and other purposes.

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The legislation authorizes the government to provide cities up to $75,000 toward the salary and benefits of each new officer hired. Divided into $7.34 billion, that provides enough money to help hire 97,920 officers, the department estimates.

Municipalities have already hired another 2,080 officers with funds from a pilot program approved as part of the budget deal last summer. Taken together, that raises the total to Clinton’s 100,000 figure.

But that neat calculation omits important qualifications. For one, if localities could not afford to put up their matching share, that would reduce the number of police hired.

Although Clinton hardly stresses the point, the bill would not mean that cities could put 100,000 more officers on the streets for each of the next six years. The process is cumulative, the federal government in effect providing cities seed money to cover most of the initial costs of adding about 20,000 new officers per year through the year 2000. Once the program has been in place for three years, the Justice Department calculates, the federal government will be subsidizing about 60,000 police officers per year.

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This is where the math gets tricky. The federal grants will generally last for three years. To reach the figure of 100,000 officers, the Administration assumes that, after the three-year subsidies expire, local governments will keep on their payrolls all the officers they hired with Washington’s help.

So, for instance, in the program’s fourth year, when the government is subsidizing about 60,000 officers, another 15,000 originally hired with bill funds are supposed to move into permanent positions with local money.

Will cities absorb all these officers when the federal grants run out? That is the greatest uncertainty in the debate over how many police the bill would add to the nation’s streets. Cities could adjust their budgets to maintain the higher staffing levels. But they may also lay off the new officers as soon as the federal money runs out.


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