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Congress Clashes Over Drawing Thin Blue Line

POLICE in Santa Ana, Calif., used to receive an average of 11 emergency calls a day from one crime-ridden neighborhood. Now, after a federal grant helped the city hire 15 new officers, that number has dropped by half.

It's the kind of story President Clinton anticipated in 1994 when he unveiled the cornerstone of his anticrime bill: the $2 billion Community Oriented Policing Services. Since COPS began, supporters say, it has helped American cities hire 33,000 officers and drive down crime rates.

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But congressional Republicans aren't so thrilled. COPS money, they argue, should not be restricted to hiring new officers, but given to localities as block grants. Besides, they say, too much funding goes to low-crime areas.

In budget talks this week, COPS has emerged as a sore point between Congress and the president. It reveals a small disagreement about crime prevention, but it also points up a larger philosophical clash that affects issues such as Medicaid and welfare: whether federal money should come with strings attached.

''Not everybody needs cops. Some departments need squad cars or computers,'' says Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde (R), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. ''Our idea is to let local authorities have some flexibility.''

In the omnibus budget bill approved last week by the House, funding for COPS was zeroed out in favor of block grants. A Senate proposal would halve the program. Mr. Clinton has promised to veto any budget that fails to maintain current spending.

It's not hard to see that COPS has made a palpable difference in many communities. Facing a loss of 10 officers in 1994, police in Passaic, N.J., used a COPS grant to add 12 badges. It helped the cash-poor District of Columbia hire 624 officers and allowed Pierre, S.D., to employ an officer to help combat a nascent drug problem.

''We think we have a pretty good community, but we're beginning to see some of the types of crime we read about in other parts of the country,'' says Pierre Police Capt. Mike Sines. ''That's what we directed our grant toward, and it has really worked out well.''

Nevertheless, Republicans in Congress argue that the program is too restrictive. More than one-third of grants have been issued under a program known as ''COPS MORE,'' they note, which allows communities to spend grants on technology and equipment that ''frees up officers to be on the streets.'' The popularity of this program proves, they say, that localities want more flexibility.

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In addition, Republicans note that more than 7,000 police jurisdictions are not covered by the program. One reason, they contend, is that COPS requires localities to match 25 percent of the federal grant - an arrangement that burdens struggling cities while aiding those that were planning to expand anyway. Another problem, Republicans say, is that grant money is phased out after three years; unless police departments come up with their own funding, new hires will be dismissed.

The block-grant proposal would provide funds to all jurisdictions that applied, regardless of their intentions for the money. In addition, these grants would require only a 10 percent match.

But the biggest problem with the COPS program, Republicans say, is that grant sizes bear little relation to actual crime rates. For example, says a Republican staffer, 75 percent of the state of New York's crime occurs in New York City, but the Big Apple only garnered 50 percent of the state's allotment.

Indeed, an analysis of FBI statistics shows that, of the 10 states with the highest COPS payments per capita, only one, Arizona, has a corresponding crime rate that places it in the top 10 nationally.

In fact, five of the top COPS states already have low instances of crime. Delaware, which received a whopping $14 per resident in COPS funds, has the 14th- lowest crime rate. Likewise, South Dakota, the No. 2 recipient per capita, is one of the four safest states in the nation.

Conversely, three states with crime rates among the nation's highest - Hawaii, Georgia, and Louisiana - ranked in the bottom 10 in terms of COPS grants per capita.

In addition, in these low-crime areas the cost of hiring one police officer is often significantly higher. Of the 11 states with the highest costs-per-officer, five had crime rates in the lowest one-fifth.

Yet White House officials note that, despite a 25 percent funding cut, COPS has already added a third of the 100,000 police Clinton promised would be hired within six years.

Block grants, says COPS spokesman Charles Miller, would contain no emphasis on hiring new officers, ''which is what most communities need.'' By basing grants on crime statistics, he says, communities are penalized when their crime rates drop. Rural areas deserve more funding, he says, because crime rates are rising fastest there.

''I've heard reports from all over on the effectiveness of community policing,'' Mr. Miller says. ''This program has a proven track record. It isn't broken, but [Republicans] want to fix it.''

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