Thinning blue line: Police cuts cripple cities

In crisis: Trenton police on patrol in the Garden State's capitol
Justin Solomon | CNBC
In crisis: Trenton police on patrol in the Garden State's capitol
""It's turned into the Wild Wild West. We have seen such an increase in gang activity and gang violence and guns as well as drugs. They've more or less taken over our communities." -Shirley Turner, Democratic Senator of N.J.

They say you can never find a cop when you need one.

In Trenton, N.J.—where budget cuts two years ago forced the city to shrink its police force by a third—the city learned just how badly it needs them. In August, the Garden state's capitol city set a record for the homicides with 32 people killed. Last year violent crime was up 4 percent, and property crime up 7 percent, from the year before, according to FBI data.

"It's unsustainable," said Shirley Turner, a Democratic state senator who has represented Trenton since 1998. "It's turned into the Wild Wild West. We have seen such an increase in gang activity and gang violence and guns as well as drugs. They've more or less taken over our communities."

It may be awhile before citizens of Trenton, and dozens of other depressed American cities coping with rising crime rates, get their communities back.

(Read more: America's cities on the edge)

Of all the line items in a city budget, public safety is the last to get cut. But the biggest shortfall in local tax revenues since the Great Depression left many local governments with no other choice. Since peaking at just over a million in 2008, the ranks of local police forces across the country have shrunk by nearly 7 percent. For the first time since the government began collecting data in 1986, the thin blue line is getting thinner.

In a series of surveys, more than half of police chiefs across the country have reported multiple rounds of budgets cuts, forcing layoffs, furloughs, hiring freezes, loss of specialty units, cutbacks on training and equipment, and service cuts.

For a time, local police departments managed to hold the line. But last year, crime rates began rising again nationwide after falling steadily since 2006,according to the FBI's Universal Crime Reporting database.

"When you lose (police officers), there is going to be an impact," said John Firman, research director at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "We will be seeing this for a while to come; this is the early stage."

Boarded home.
Justin Solomon | CNBC
Boarded home.

The impact, though, has been as uneven as the economic fortunes of the cities and towns served by those police officers. To no one's surprise, the biggest spikes in crime have come in the most deeply depressed cities that have suffered the biggest budget cutbacks when tax revenues shrank.

That's when the order came down: "Do more with less." But unlike a company that can decide to drop a slow-moving product line, local police departments had a big problem. They couldn't just decide to answer fewer 911 calls.

Budgets may have shrunk, but taxpayers' expectations haven't, according to Joshua Ederheimer, Acting Director at the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program.

"You call the police for an abandoned car— they'll take care of if, you call the police for a loose dog, they'll take care of it, you call the police for a highway light that's out and they coordinate the repair," he said. "Law enforcement are very service oriented people that work in a paramilitary environment and take orders. They actually do come in with the attitude that, 'Well alright, if I'm told to do this, I'm going to find a way to do it."

And many of them have. These cash-strapped police departments have applied a variety of measures to hold the line on crime.

Technology has played a critical role in maintaining public safety, much as it has throughout the U.S. economy. Improvements in data reporting and analysis are helping target crime "hotspots" and redeploy scarce resources where they'll do the most good. Other cities are experimenting with "virtual patrols" – where command centers monitor remote cameras installed in high crime areas, said Ederheimer.

"If they see something then they'll redirect a mobile unit in the field," he said. "It's a very different way of patrolling."

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"A trained police officer—armed and constantly recertified—that's a big investment." -John Firman, Research Director, International Association of Chiefs of Police

Some departments have back filled open jobs with civilians at a lower pay grade to work as dispatchers, computer specialists, budget administrators and clerks. In police circles, it's called "civilianization."

Others have turned to unpaid citizens, from neighborhood watches to volunteers who help solve cold cases. The Justice Department's Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) Program matches citizens with police department needs – a kind of eHarmony for volunteers, according to Firman.

But relying on civilians only goes so far.

"A trained police officer—armed and constantly recertified—that's a big investment," said Firman. "But the public still has the expectation and desire that they're going to have a sworn, badge-wearing law enforcement officer come to their home."

Those citizens also want to see the name of their city or town on that officer's badge. That's a big reason there are some 18,000 separate police departments in the U.S., far more than in other developed countries. Despite budget pressures and widespread layoffs, the idea of turning to outsiders for police protection has been a tough sell in most communities.

In Trenton, there a good chance the cop who responds to a given call will be wearing a New Jersey State Police badge, after state police were deployed to combat a surge in crime this summer. The extra patrols help, but they can't built the same level of trust with the people they're trying to protect, according to Darren Green, president of the Trenton Council of Civic Associations.

"Inside a lot of minority communities your hear 'stop snitching'", he said. "There's a culture where you see wrong and you don't report wrong but you're offended when wrong happens. I've been with officers who rolled up on a scene where shooting just occurred and there's forty people outside and nobody saw anything. So should that officer really care about you when you don't care about yourself? There has to be ownership on both sides."

In Trenton, and other cities coping with deep cutbacks in police payrolls, there are limits to "doing more with less." Calling on state police for reinforcements is just a "band-aid," said Turner.

"We need to get more boots on the streets," she said. "We've got to restore our police force to the level it was before the layoffs."

But for now, the money is just not there. Like some three dozen other states, New Jersey has imposed a cap on local property taxes, barring cities and towns from raising them more than two percent a year.

Trenton's mayor, Tony Mack, has asked the state for emergency funding. But his appeal has undermined by allegations of corruption after a federal grand jury indicted him in December 2012 on bribery charges. Several key members of his administration also have been charged with other, unrelated crimes.

So when Mack asked New Jersey governor Chris Christie for state funds in August to help hire 75 police officers, Christie said no way.

"I have no response to anything the indicted mayor of Trenton has to say," Christie told reporters at a news conference.

That standoff between the state of New Jersey and its capitol city is an extreme case. But the role of state government in restoring public safety to deeply depressed cities like Trenton is being debated in statehouses around the country.

One thing all sides agree on: wider efforts to rebuild broken cities can't succeed until public safety is restored. As long as businesses and citizens live in fear, many of the nation's hardest hit cities face a bleak future.

"Are we going to really try to reclaim these areas and make them viable?" said Jeffrey Keefe, a labor economist at Rutgers University. "Or are we going to just declare certain areas as unsafe, no-go places where an indigent population lives and gets victimized by criminal elements? That's certainly a way to drive business out and guarantee that were not going to revitalize them. Because nobody is going to want to operate in there."

By CNBC's John Schoen. Follow him on Twitter @johnwschoen.