The Democratic theme song is "Happy Days Are Here Again," and nowhere do Democrats think that axiom applies better than in the realm of fighting crime. They recall that thanks to legislation passed in 1994, Bill Clinton put 100,000 new cops on the street, and the result was an abatement of violence. Give Democrats their way, they suggest, and we can repeat that success.
Leading the charge is Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who sponsored that bill and is pushing legislation to hire another 50,000 officers, at a cost of $3.6 billion over six years, under the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. He says it was because of the last round of hiring that "murder and violent crime rates went down eight years in a row."
It's hard to find Democrats who differ. Among his co-sponsors are fellow presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd. The House has already passed a similar measure.
But anyone who expects this approach to work as promised should take a closer look at what actually happened the last time. In the first place, the 1994 bill didn't make good on its goal of adding 100,000 cops to the streets. A study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice estimated it produced a net increase of just 82,000, while allowing that it might have been as few as 69,000.
Those numbers aside, the retreat of lawlessness began before any of those new police were sworn in. The murder rate peaked in 1991, and property crime began a steady decline in the mid-1970s. Biden blames the demise of federal hiring grants two years ago for the rise in violent crime in 2005 and 2006. But the murder rate has been essentially stable since 1999, with only minor year-to-year variations. The overall crime rate, meanwhile, continued to fall over the last two years.
Some criminologists find no evidence that the new cops did anything to lower the level of mayhem. A study by John Worrall and Tomislav Kovandzic of the University of Texas at Dallas, published this year in the journal Criminology, concluded that "COPS grants had no discernible effect on serious crime." A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office disagreed, but said the effect was very small. About 95 percent of the decline in crime in the 1990s, it said, was attributable to other factors.
We shouldn't be surprised that adding all those patrol officers would produce little or no improvement. Given the multiple shifts, vacation and sick days, the additional number of personnel on the street at any given moment is only about 10,000, spread across a nation of 300 million people. That's fewer than one extra cop per local police department.
Flooding the zone in high-crime areas might yield significant results. But the money also wasn't targeted at those cities with the worst crime. It was allocated, with majestic impartiality, among places that are dangerous and places that are safe.
As Worrall and Kovandzic note, the average COPS hiring grant was practically a rounding error, amounting to about one half of one percent of a typical department's annual budget. Expecting that amount of money to have a dramatic effect on crime is like losing a pound and thinking you'll need to have all your pants taken in.
"If you doubled the size of the police force," Worrall told me, "you'd expect crime to decline. But at this level, it's not enough to make a noticeable difference."
The sponsors suggest the Bush administration has abdicated its crime-fighting duties by not providing funds for additional hiring. What they conveniently forget is that the program was supposed to be a temporary boost rather than a permanent obligation. Local law enforcement has historically been the responsibility of cities and counties, not the federal government.
If more cops really translate into safer streets, you would think local taxpayers would be more than willing to bear the expense. But if they don't think their safety is worth what it costs, why should the rest of us foot the bill? The idea that residents of one city can finance their police operations at someone else's expense is a fraud. Everyone gets federal money from the COPS program, but everyone also pays for it.
In the case of a new version of the program, what we'd have to pay is clear. What we'd get back is not.