Economic downturn hits U.S. police with double whammy

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 21, 2008 11:30am EDT

1 of 2. An NYPD police officer closes the block containing the Mexican Consulate on East 39th Street in New York, October 26, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Jeff Zelevansky

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The growing financial crisis is a double whammy for police in many U.S. cities: They face budget cuts as they brace for an expected surge in burglaries, thefts and robberies.

"Police departments are going to have do more with less," said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, a national law enforcement association based in Washington.

"I expect police budgets for the foreseeable future to be flat or decline. That will mean less ability to put officers on extended tours and overtime during peak crime hours; it might mean deferring hiring officers for the future," he said.

Although there has long been debate over the connection between crime and the economy, most of the criminologists, sociologists and police chiefs interviewed by Reuters forecast a rise in crimes in certain categories in the coming months as the United States heads deeper into recession territory.

Crime has increased during every recession since the late 1950s, said Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

Those interviewed stressed they were not talking about an increase in overall levels of crime, which have been falling in the United States since the 1990s, but an uptick in opportunistic crimes like theft and burglary.

They say most crimes will still be committed by career criminals but that others in the ranks of the newly unemployed could become drawn in for a variety of reasons.

"The empirical picture is that when people are unemployed and economic hardship is more widespread, crime seems to be more frequent. One of the interesting questions will be crime in the middle class. Will that increase and in what way will it manifest itself?" said Tom Blomberg, dean of the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University.

For a case study, he need look no further than Miami, where police have seen a surge in insurance fraud. Some car owners, for example, finding they can no longer afford their payments, are dumping the vehicles and then reporting them as stolen.

"We are starting to see middle class people getting arrested for insurance fraud ... because they can't afford the lifestyle they have become accustomed to. But that is a very small percentage," said Miami police chief John Timoney.

SAVING GAS

Timoney said his budget was in good shape thanks to the support of Miami's mayor. However, almost all other police departments in Florida were receiving less revenue, he said.

In a survey of a 200 police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum in July, 45 percent said the economic downturn had affected their ability to reduce crime, and 39 percent said they had seen their budgets shrink.

Two-thirds or more of a police department's budget is eaten up by personnel costs.

In Las Vegas, where revenues from casinos have fallen 15 percent, Sheriff Douglas Gillespie said he had started pairing up his police officers in patrol cars to save on gas.

Other police agencies report similar fuel efficiency measures as well as cutting back on overtime.

Police departments in the United States are funded largely by local property taxes, so they have been hard hit by the subprime mortgage crisis, which forced some Americans to abandon homes they could no longer afford.

In some districts many of those abandoned houses have become magnets for squatters, drug users and criminals who break in to steal valuable copper piping.

Charlie Deane, police chief of Prince William County in Virginia, probably knows more about this than most. The county, one of the richest in the United States, has close to 3,000 foreclosed, vacant houses.

"I certainly anticipate that these vacancies being of more of a concern as time goes on. As more people catch on to the ease with which they can steal, and as the economy gets worse some people will no doubt become more desperate ... to the extent they will steal," he said.

The swathe of foreclosures sharply reduced income from property taxes and Deane has already been forced to trim his force of 568 officers by four posts. His budget is going to be cut again by $420,000, so more police officers may have to go.

Lesley Williams Reid, a sociologist at Georgia State University who has studied urban crime, said any cuts to police budgets would be bad news, particularly if the economic downturn is prolonged and more people become unemployed.

"I don't want to add to a culture of fear, but there is a clear reason to be worried about how this is going to affect crime rates," she said.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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