Rutland, Vt., City Police officer Chuck Hall spends his days at the Rutland High School, where he’s available for everything from fender benders in the parking lots to heading off fights before they happen.

His two years in the school has made a difference. Kids don’t smoke in the bathrooms, there’s no graffiti, fights almost never happen, and heroin–which is sweeping the rest of the community–has never been found inside the high school.

In the summer when school is not in session, Hall walks the beat in downtown Rutland, where he spends much of his time dealing with the young people he got to know at the school.

“The primary goal is to break down the barrier between cops and kids,” Hall said of his work in the schools, which pays off on the streets. “It helps break down the barrier of that culture that you don’t talk to cops.”

Hall’s work in Rutland, population about 18,500, was made possible by the federal government’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. The Justice Department program pays 75 percent of the costs of new officers for three years. After that, the communities receiving the grants must fund the officers themselves.

The Bush administration wants to cut funding for the COPS program by 17 percent–to $855 million from $1.03 billion–and eliminate the program that puts new officers on the street.

The administration hopes the budget cuts will make way for the president’s top crime-fighting priorities, which include more federal prisons, computers, border patrol officers, and federal prosecutors.

Under Bush’s proposed budget, technology grants would double to $100 million. The administration wants another $255 million for crime lab improvements to upgrade record-keeping and build up DNA information.

In some parts of the country, the COPS program has been criticized for putting unprofessional officers on the street, while other communities have had trouble keeping the officers employed once the grants ran out.

Nevertheless, some politicians are criticizing the Bush plan, while police across the country say the COPS program has served them well.

“The federal partnership with local and state law enforcement agencies is one reason why crime rates have fallen in each of the past eight years and the national rate of violent crime is at its lowest level since 1978,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “We should redouble our efforts to keep crime at bay, not cut them short now that these efforts are beginning to pay off.”

Mount Morris Township, Mich., used the COPS program to go from a department with about 22 officers to 34, said Deputy Police Chief Hap Ashley.

Ashley said violent crime in the community of 30,000 just outside Flint was down about half, while overall crime was down about 25 percent–much of which he attributes to the extra officers on the street.

“We had our fair share of shootings and cuttings, the stuff you see in big cities. We just reacted and took the calls,” Ashley said. “Our big concern now is kids loitering and loud music.”

The grants for Mount Morris have since run out, but the community has found a way to keep the officers on board, Ashley said.

The Rutland police department used COPS to hire three new officers, bringing the police department’s strength to 38 officers.

It’s hard to measure the success of the program in Rutland, where the new officers came at the same time heroin arrived in the city, causing about a 33 percent increase in property crimes.

“I think if it weren’t for these three officers, we would have had a real hard time keeping our heads above water,” said Rutland Police Chief Anthony Bossi.

It’s been a balancing act. Bossi has known he would have to get the City Council to pay for the officers once the grants ran out. And the city and the school board have each chipped in to keep the new officers paid.

But Bossi returned to the Justice Department a grant for a fourth officer because he couldn’t be assured of keeping the position funded once the grant ran out.

The goal of the program, first introduced in 1994, was to put 100,000 new police officers on the street. In the seven years the program has been in operation, 196 new officers have been added to Vermont police and sheriffs’ departments.

The Bush administration plan would continue paying the current grants that are in the pipeline.

A separate program known as COPS in Schools, which specifically provides money for officers such as Hall, is not targeted for elimination.

But Hall’s position is not funded by COPS in Schools. The city used the program to put the new police officers on the street, freeing up Hall, a 19-year-police veteran, to work in the school.

Meanwhile, at Rutland High School, the students like having a police officer among them all the time.

Students “don’t see him as a police officer,” said senior Sarah Gee, who turned 18 in April. “They see him as someone they can go to for help.”

Links:

Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS)
U.S. Department of Justice
100 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20530
phone (202) 514-2058
http://www.usdoj.gov/cops/gpa/default.htm