The North Little Rock Police Department that Chief Danny Bradley returned to in 2001 was dramatically different from the one he'd left six years earlier.
The police force had grown by 50 percent, from 138 officers in January 1995 to 205 in January 2001.
Nearly all of the hires had been made possible by grants from the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, a Justice Department program created in 1994. The program helps city and county law enforcement agencies hire and train officers, buy equipment and develop crime-fighting strategies.
In the late 1990s, the NLRPD got $3 million from the COPS programs, which typically pay 75 percent of a new hire's salary for three years.
With more officers on the street, the city reported an 11 percent drop in property crime and 39 percent in violent crime.
Bradley and other police chiefs around the country are watching with some dismay as the federal programs they used to build their departments are being systematically dismantled by budget cuts, though some money still arrives for homeland security purposes, a decidedly different issue than community policing.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 45 percent of the funding COPS uses to help pay for local police officers has been cut, a recent International Association of Chiefs of Police report indicates. Other law enforcement assistance programs — like the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program — have also sustained steep cuts, about $1.5 billion since 2002.
The huge reduction in federal grants hasn't done much to affect the usual operations at most law enforcement agencies. Through local and state revenues, cities and counties are still able to put police officers on the street, equip them with the necessities and allow them to put criminals behind bars.
And federal money still helps a little. Little Rock, for example, recently received $525,000 to hire seven new officers, but it's still below its top strength.
What the grant cuts have done, officials with police say, is limited the scope of what the agencies can accomplish, by forcing them to cut back on technology used for crime response and analysis, reducing the availability of funds for community policing efforts intended to prevent crimes from ever happening, and even hurting the agencies' ability to prevent terrorism.
The Bush administration has proposed eliminating the COPS and Byrne/JAG programs altogether for 2009. Its plan is to replace them with two initiatives that would represent a 90 percent reduction from 2002 levels in Justice Department funding for local law enforcement.
That's potentially bad news for law enforcement agencies like the NLRPD that depend on federal grants to pay for new technology, training and officers.
“It's gradually fallen for a few years,” Bradley said of one Justice Department grant. “We've taken a significant hit.”
Byrne/JAG funding — popular because it supports a broad range of activities to prevent crime and improve the criminal justice system — was slashed from $520 million in 2007 to $170 million in 2008.
That cost the NLRPD, the Little Rock Police Department and the Pulaski County sheriff's office nearly $400,000 that would have gone to technology upgrades to police cars, officials said.
Arkansas's total allocation from the Byrne/Jag program was cut by more than $3 million.
After the funding level for the program is established, the grant's administrators determine each state and local government's allocation from a formula based on population and crime statistics.
Bradley said the reduction — about $60,000 for North Little Rock — means his department will equip five fewer police units with in-car computers this year.
The computers, which cost about $14,000 for the equipment and installation, have been installed in 67 of the department's cars, he said. About 40 percent of the department's police units do not have the computers, which include GPS and cameras.
The Pulaski County sheriff's office used its Byrne/JAG funding, cut from $43,542 to $17,749, to purchase laptop computers for the cars. Deputies submit reports wirelessly using the computers.
Little Rock's allocation fell $300,000, to $148,648. The LRPD uses federal money to fund a project to place cameras and computers in dozens of patrol cars. The new forensic equipment and software used in crime analysis and mapping, Jim Foster, the administrative services manager for the LRPD, said, is expensive technology the department would never be able to buy with local funds. The cuts will mean the department can't buy software it hoped to buy. However, the LRPD will use the funds it gets to allow patrol units equipped with the cameras and computers to report from the field. The LRPD received $450,000 from COPS in November 2007, its second COPS grant since 2000, to fight meth use. (Like North Little Rock, the LRPD took advantage of COPS in the 1990s by adding 82 officers through nearly $3.5 million in funding in a five-year span.)
The Bush administration's 2009 budget would cut nearly $750 million — 42 percent — from the department's law enforcement assistance programs, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Homeland Security grants provided camera equipment for security at a sensitive unnamed facility, Bradley said. Another provided funds for an incident command vehicle that can be used for both homeland security and law enforcement efforts. A lot of the funds given for homeland security seem to have shifted to larger cities or federal law enforcement agencies, he said.
Bradley said the city council has been supportive of his department, allowing it to retain most of the officers hired under COPS.
But Bradley said “it would be beneficial” for the department to have one more funding source. “It's really just kept us from building the department for the future.”