In the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school bloodbath last month, National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne LaPierre summed up his group's Hobbesian vision for America this way: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." He then proceeded to propose a massive new government program for protecting the nation's 100,000 public schools, one with a potential price tag in the range of $7-10 billion a year:
"I call on Congress today to act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school."As it turns out, the NRA's idea is a popular one, especially among Republicans. Apparently the Obama administration and some Democrats are warming to it as well; the Washington Post reports that Vice President Biden's recommendations may include making "federal dollars available to schools that want to hire police officers and install surveillance equipment."
But public support for the idea shouldn't be confused with its efficacy. After all, armed guards didn't prevent the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech. And what starts with schools won't end with them: the next slaughter will prompt demands for gun-toting officers at churches, supermarkets and shopping malls. Even more important, state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide are confronting other urgent—and more frequent and probable—risks to public safety. And as it turns out, thanks to the recession which began in late 2007 they are facing those challenges with tens of thousands fewer officers and staff than just four years ago.
All of which is why Washington should instead consider a new twist on an old idea: 100,000 cops. Those new feet on the street won't just make communities around the nation safer. As we'll see below, they'll also be a badly needed boost for the U.S. economy.
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All told, the public sector has shed over 600,000 employees since mid-2009. (The figure was 89,000 over the last three months of 2012, representing one government job lost for five gained in the private sector.) The triple whammy of declining state and local tax revenues (which only returned to 2008 levels last year), draconian budget cuts and the drying up of federal stimulus funds have led to a record decline in government jobs.
The impact on police and first responders has been staggering. Last August, an analysis by the Hamilton Project recorded an 8.9 percent drop from July 2009, with the number of police department employees dropping from 667,000 to 610,000. The ranks of emergency responders also dropped, from over 69,000 to 39,000. An October 2011 Justice Department analysis ("The Impact of the Economic Downturn on American Police Agencies") reported steep budget cuts, furloughs of both staff and uniformed officers, and downsizing through attrition. About 30,000 law enforcement jobs were left unfilled, while 28,000 officers and deputies faced week-long furloughs in 2010. Over half (51 percent) of the departments surveyed reported budget cuts averaging 7 percent between 2009 and 2010; 59 percent anticipated further reductions in 2011.
The result isn't just that officer training has been reduced and investments in communications and other technology deferred or cancelled. "Some agencies have stopped responding to all motor vehicle thefts, burglar alarms, and non-injury motor vehicle accidents," the DOJ report noted, while others "have also reported decreases in investigations of property crimes, fugitive tracking, a variety of white collar crimes, and even low-level narcotics cases." The headlines tell the tale: In cities like Camden, Oakland and Las Vegas just to name a few), large layoffs and pay cuts have been accompanied by spikes in violent crime.
The conclusion is inescapable: America's police departments need more resources and they need more cops. And whether they're in Chicago, Illinois or Dothan, Alabama, police chiefs need the flexibility to decide their top priorities for deploying them.
Of course, the "armed guards in schools" crowd has another resource challenge to confront. Before putting security personnel in every school, they might want to first rehire some of the 220,000 teachers laid off across the nation between 2009 and 2011. As President Obama pointed out in August:
"This year, several thousand fewer educators will be going back to school. Since 2009, we've lost more than 300,000 education jobs, in part, because of budget cuts at the state and local level. Think about what that means for our country. At a time when the rest of the world is racing to out-educate America; these cuts force our kids into crowded classrooms, cancel programs for preschoolers and kindergarteners, and shorten the school week and the school year. That's the opposite of what we should be doing as a country."Not according to the leading lights of the Republican Party and its conservative amen corner. In the fall of 2011, columnist George Will exulted that the public sector "happily shrank" and cheered "that's good." For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called those layoffs a "local problem." In June, Liz Cheney mocked President Obama for "actually trying to undo even the good that is being done at the state level."
Unfortunately for the American economy, what's been happening to government workers at the state and local level is far from "good."
In April, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) showed how bad with the chart above. Noting that the private sector had gained 2.8 million jobs while federal, state and local governments shed 584,000 just since June 2009, EPI concluded that the public sector job losses constituted "an unprecedented drag on the recovery":
The current recovery is the only one that has seen public-sector losses over its first 31 months...As the New York Times' Floyd Norris explained in "the Incredible Shrinking U.S. Government."
If public-sector employment had grown since June 2009 by the average amount it grew in the three previous recoveries (2.8 percent) instead of shrinking by 2.5 percent, there would be 1.2 million more public-sector jobs in the U.S. economy today. In addition, these extra public-sector jobs would have helped preserve about 500,000 private-sector jobs.
For the first time in 40 years, the government sector of the American economy has shrunk during the first three years of a presidential administration.
Spending by the federal government, adjusted for inflation, has risen at a slow rate under President Obama. But that increase has been more than offset by a fall in spending by state and local governments, which have been squeezed by weak tax receipts.
In the first quarter of this year, the real gross domestic product for the government -- including state and local governments as well as federal -- was 2 percent lower than it was three years earlier, when Barack Obama took office in early 2009.
All told, the unemployment rate without the hemorrhaging of public sector jobs could be a full point lower. "We're talking big numbers here. If government employment under Mr. Obama had grown at Reagan-era rates," Paul Krugman lamented in March, "1.3 million more Americans would be working as schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, etc., than are currently employed in such jobs."
Yet when President Obama rolled out his $447 billion American Jobs Act including new assistance to state and local governments in the fall of 2011, Republicans made it clear why they opposed a bill former McCain economic adviser Mark Zandi forecast that could create up to 1.9 million jobs and add two points to U.S. GDP:
"Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win?"In response to the GOP filibuster, a frustrated Obama could only ask:
"Are they against putting teachers and police officers and firefighters back on the job? Are they against hiring construction workers to rebuild our roads and bridges and schools?"In a word, yes. Republicans remain opposed to putting teachers and cops back to work. Opposed, that is, until killings of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, Connecticut, became an obstacle to putting more guns in the hands of Americans. As Wayne LaPierre put it on Meet the Press last month:
"If it's crazy to call for putting police in and securing our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy,"Of course, even a crazy man (as Stephen Colbert suggested) can have the kernel of a good idea. But before we put Blackwater in our schools, we should put more men and women in blue. Let's put teachers in the classrooms and, like Bill Clinton did in the 1990s, 100,000 more cops in our communities.