Strangling the Police Corps

Posted: Jun 06, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The Police Corps, a small federal program that actually works, faces strangulation by politicians and number crunchers. It would take a mere pittance to maintain this imaginative program of training high-caliber, college-educated street cops. That pittance, however, is hard to come by.

Final appropriations approved this year for the Police Corps totaled $15 million, half of what President Bush requested. Even if Congress approves the full $30 million for next year, the Police Corps would be unable to maintain its present 22-state program, much less add five states that want to join. It would take $45 million just to stay even. In a climate where members of Congress dispense billions for unneeded pork-barrel projects back home, this is a trifling sum.

Its size may be its undoing. In contrast to commercial enterprises that are deemed too large to fail, this government program may be too small to succeed. The Police Corps, extravagantly praised by the few government policymakers familiar with this program, lacks a political top gun to ensure its survival.

It never has enjoyed high profile support. The Police Corps was envisioned in 1982 by New York City lawyer Adam Walinsky, who long ago was an aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and then the Democratic nominee for attorney general of New York. It took 12 years to become reality despite an indifferent governmental establishment, and keeping it alive became Walinsky's life work.

The major bureaucratic complaint against the Police Corps is that it is too expensive. Actually, the cost of educating and training a Police Corps cadet ranges between $40,000 and $60,000 (depending upon geographical region), plus a $30,000 college scholarship.

While some Office of Management and Budget (OMB) bureaucrats shudder over this cost, it is a bargain. FBI training costs $50,000, without counting pay and benefits. It takes $1 million to train a member of U.S. special forces. Although Police Corps costs can be reduced through larger classes and training more classes per year, the OMB actually has found that the government gets more back from the Police Corps than the billions of dollars worth of other Justice Department grant programs.

Beyond cost-benefit ratios, the value of the Police Corps is appreciated by the handful of officials who have observed it first-hand. One middle-level administration official who witnessed Police Corps training in Baltimore (and asked not to be quoted by name) told me: "I was impressed by the caliber of training and the confidence of the recruits. They were learning how to protect people and apprehend suspects with a minimum of violence. They felt they were embarking on a noble profession."

I came away with precisely the same conclusions after my contacts over recent years with Police Corps cadets and their training in Mississippi, Florida and Missouri. After undergoing an arduous physical and academic regimen, the cadets must spend four years on the street -- not at a desk. Participating police chiefs have eagerly embraced them as prize rookies on their forces.

With Police Corps programs now functioning in 22 states (most doing well, with a few struggling), five additional states want in but are barred for lack of funding: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Ohio and Virginia. Yet, the current budget crunch threatens to reduce vital training in the current states.

Ignored in that crunch is what the Police Corps can contribute against terrorism, surmounting the partisan debate enveloping the issue. Democrats in Congress never tire of demanding more federal funds for "first-responders" in unionized fire and police departments controlled by Democratic mayors. The White House contends that the way to protect the American people is through better intelligence rather than more police and firefighters.

That ideological struggle is not addressed by the Police Corps, whose role in the war against terrorism goes to the second criticism of the program: elitism. Indeed it is elitist, and intends to be. It can provide educated, thinking officers to form the nucleus of police who can cope with terrorism without emotional excesses. The question is whether the Police Corps will be crowded out for minimal budget savings while the government spends billions on dubious projects.