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Federal auditors hesitate to help broke cities hire police

Amid a crippling budget crisis, law enforcement has repeatedly been spared the steepest cuts, as the U.S. Justice Department funneled tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money last year to save hundreds of police jobs in California.

Nationwide, $1 billion paid out of the Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Recovery Program kept more than 4,000 on the force. But that cash might not flow so easily to California the next time - particularly to the state's bankrupt cities.

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General last month published an audit of the COPS program that discovered a handful of errors in the program’s administration. More alarming for the Golden State, the auditors expressed concern about giving police-hiring grants to towns and cities that are officially broke.

“For example, six agencies that were awarded [Hiring Recovery Program] grants indicated in their applications that they were either bankrupt or in receivership. We believe COPS should consider using this fiscal information to identify grantees that are at a greater risk of failing to meet their retention requirements.”

Two years ago, the Bay Area city of Vallejo filed for bankruptcy protection. Talk of similar moves by other local California governments is growing louder. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has predicted that the state’s largest city risks bankruptcy without increased utility rates.

"You don't have the easy out of increasing revenue and you have a lot more call on services because of the economy. There's no such thing as entertaining bankruptcy; there's ending denial," Orange County Treasurer Chriss Street told Reuters in May.

The Justice Department, the auditors advise, should monitor such at-risk agencies much more closely to ensure the dollars go to public safety, not deficits.

Police departments are often the most significant expense local governments incur, with officers racking up overtime hours and generous retirement benefits as they serve and protect.

Oakland might soon validate the inspector general’s concern about distressed municipal budgets. The East Bay city is considering whether to eliminate 200 police officer positions, The Bay Citizen reports. Just a year ago, Oakland received $19 million in stimulus money to protect 41 officers’ jobs.

Several other cash-strapped California cities cashed police stimulus grants, including:

Antioch: $2,078,988

Vallejo: $2,177,436

Los Angeles: $16,285,650

Stockton: $7,932,160

Vallejo, having emerged from bankruptcy, is still looking to reduce its police department, according to the city’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year. The city might eliminate 17 officers' positions – 16 percent of its force – to save $3 million.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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