WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Police chiefs in the United States say the economic downturn is fueling a rise in crime and warn that cuts to their budgets could handcuff their efforts to tackle it, according to a report on Tuesday.
Of 233 police agencies surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based law enforcement organization, 44 percent reported a rise in certain types of crime they attributed to the United States' worst economic and financial crisis in decades.
The survey, conducted in late December and early January, also found that 63 percent of the departments were making plans for overall cuts in their funding for the next fiscal year.
"We are not saying there is going to be a crime wave, but we are saying this is a wake-up call and we anticipate the situation will continue to deteriorate," PERF executive director Chuck Wexler told Reuters in an interview.
There has long been debate over the connection between crime and the economy, but criminologists, sociologists and police chiefs interviewed by Reuters in October predicted a rise in crimes as the United States sinks deeper into recession.
Crime has increased during every recession since the late 1950s, sociologists said.
"We know that when police departments saw increases in violent crime in 2005 and 2006, they were able to respond quickly by using overtime to flood crime hot spots with additional patrols and sending specialized units in," Wexler said in a statement.
"This helped to bring crime back down again in 2007 and the first half of 2008. The threat posed by the economic crisis is that a lot of departments will no longer have these options available to keep crime and violence down."
Of the 100 agencies who linked crime rises to the economic crisis, 39 percent said they had seen an increase in robberies, 32 percent an uptick in burglaries and 40 percent an increase in thefts from vehicles.
The PERF said on average the agencies who participated in the survey were planning a 6.24 percent cut in their overall funding, while many had already reduced funding in many areas.
Miami police chief John Timoney said police departments were normally the last agencies to be affected by a downturn in the economy because local authorities saw public safety as a top priority.
"The fact that most police departments currently are being asked to make cuts is an indication of how badly this recession is affecting local tax bases," Timoney said.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman