Fiscal cliff: Florida officials urge Congress to avoid cuts to law enforcement grants

Corey Perrine/Staff
A Fort Myers police officer is seen walking on American Avenue near Davis Court where the scene of a drive by shooting occurred late night Sept. 23, 2012 in Fort Myers. Authorities identified the shooting to be from the local rap group the Lake Boyz. A 19-year-old man, Jamaris Williams, died in the incident. Paul Baldwin, 19, and Tommy Williams, 18, suffered non life-threatning injuries.

Photo by COREY PERRINE // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff A Fort Myers police officer is seen walking on American Avenue near Davis Court where the scene of a drive by shooting occurred late night Sept. 23, 2012 in Fort Myers. Authorities identified the shooting to be from the local rap group the Lake Boyz. A 19-year-old man, Jamaris Williams, died in the incident. Paul Baldwin, 19, and Tommy Williams, 18, suffered non life-threatning injuries.

Fort Myers Chief of Police Doug Baker

Fort Myers Chief of Police Doug Baker

This is one of a series of stories looking at potential local effects of the fiscal cliff. Return to naplesnews.com through Wednesday or pick up copies of the Daily News on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

RELATED STORY: Fiscal cliff: A Q&A to understand the basics, the effects if not resolved

Over the past four years, federal grants to the Fort Myers Police Department have paid for stop sticks to thwart fleeing criminals, video systems to record traffic stops and vests to stop bullets from piercing vital organs of officers.

But as the looming fiscal cliff approaches, new budget negotiations threaten such grants to law enforcement. If Congress cuts the purse strings, the result could be anywhere from uncomfortable to disastrous for cities like Fort Myers, which already this year has struggled with a soaring homicide rate and increasing street violence.

"Grant money has been instrumental to us for a number of years in dealing with violent crime and community policing," Police Chief Doug Baker said. "We want to make sure those are maintained."

Last week, Baker and 20 other Florida law enforcement officials signed a letter to congressional leaders, pleading lawmakers not to cut their federal funding. The two-page letter addressed to Democrats Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and Republicans Mitch McConnell and John Boehner contains 144 pages of signatures from law enforcement authorities across the country.

In the letter, the law enforcement professionals address five points, saying:

■ A number of crimes committed locally involve regional, national or international gangs or drug trafficking operations, which are best fought through a collaborative effort.

■ Federal funding is needed for "cross-jurisdictional learning."

■ Crime is at a historic low in part because of federal grants that allow for prevention practices. Crime "can and will rise again if federal assistance is withdrawn."

■ Crime-ridden communities aren't attractive for business growth.

■ Federally funded programs that reduce recidivism in time reduce overcrowding and reduce the need for more spending in the prison system.

The federal government currently encompasses about 3.3 percent of annual spending — about $2.6 billion — for crime control and prevention, according to the letter's authors. Since fiscal year 2010, grant programs through the Department of Justice have been cut 43 percent.

"State and local law enforcement officers are the first responders, the 'boots on the ground,' in every criminal investigation, even those that become federal investigations," the letter said. "Federal support is vital to our collective success."

Baker said police in Fort Myers are scheduled for upcoming training with the Department of Justice in reference to rising violent crime within the city. It is exactly the type of outreach he fears could be in jeopardy with further spending cuts.

"Those extra dollars provide us with technical assistance as we move through public safety in our jurisdiction," he said.

The grants — which totaled $4.4 million to Fort Myers over the past four years — have also helped police fill more officer positions and purchase equipment like bulletproof vests, Tasers, patrol rifles, fingerprint scanners, digital cameras and in-car video systems.

"It augments our budget for equipment that I may not be able to gather through my own police department budget," Baker said. "It's very important to our bottom line."

Editor's note: First of a three-day series. Monday: Potential effects on nonprofits and the real estate market

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