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Gun Shy

Cuts to funding for two law enforcement task forces leave both parties in a finger-pointing stand-off

Gregory B. Hladky

September 15, 2009

Budgets aren't usually measured in blood.

This one, the state spending plan produced after eight months of political infighting between the Democratic legislature and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, could be different.

Consider the following: According to law enforcement reports, Hartford homicides jumped by 88 percent between 2004 and 2008, and three quarters of the city's killings last year involved guns. In New Haven, gun violence accounted for 55 deaths and 509 nonfatal shootings over the past two years. Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch says his city suffers "from the same urban diseases."

Yet this new budget eliminates state funding for two law enforcement task forces assigned to combat gun trafficking and gang violence. The cuts are expected to save $1.44 million, or about .004 percent of the $37.6 billion in taxpayer money scheduled to be pumped out over the next two years.

The task forces were originally created as a response to surging gun-and-gang violence in the cities. Politicians on both sides of this year's budget brawl repeatedly promised to never compromise public safety.

Of course, chopping the state money for things like this doesn't mean local cops couldn't pick up the slack if they really wanted to, or maybe the state police could somehow find a little extra cash to pay for it. At least, those are among the justifications being trotted out.

Then there's the possibility no one would notice these tiny, insignificant cuts when so many bigger programs were getting hammered.

Don't worry though, the cover-your-ass finger-pointing has already begun.

Even though Rell first proposed cutting out the money for the two task forces, a spokesman for her administration blames the Democrats. Jeff Beckham, of the state Office of Policy and Management, argues that deeper reductions in social programs (which Democrats resisted) might have allowed room to save the law enforcement funding.

Democrats say they decided to go along with these cuts in order to preserve several social programs that had, in their eyes, "a higher priority." By doing so, they could also disprove Rell's accusation that Democrats wouldn't go along with any unpleasant cuts.

"It's like being in a lifeboat," said state Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney. "Some things get preserved; some things get chucked overboard."

The decision to pull all state money for the two task forces bewildered some officials with big stakes in the issue of gun and gang violence.

"That amazes me," Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said last week when he first heard about it.

"I'm shocked. This is news to me," said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, an East Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee.

The House chairman of the General Assembly's Public Safety Committee, West Haven state Rep. Stephen Dargan, was also taken aback. "I've got to get clarification on that," he said. "I don't know where that really came from."

Finch wasn't aware the money had been axed, but he wasn't all that shocked.

"This is a suburban state," he said of Connecticut. "Of suburbia, for suburbia, by suburbia. ... It really shouldn't surprise anyone that programs against urban violence got cut."

The fact that it was done with almost no one outside the budget talks noticing really pisses off a few folks who get paid to pay attention to stuff like this.

"I looked through that [budget] bill, all 700 pages of it," said Bob Crook, spokesman for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, "and I missed it."

Crook's organization doesn't like gun control. He has long argued Connecticut should get serious about enforcing existing gun laws before enacting any more restrictions on "law-abiding citizens" who own firearms. That's why Crook has been a big supporter of targeting criminals who use guns illegally.

"If you don't have enforcement, there's no sense in having any more laws," said Crook.

The irony of this particular budget cut is that it has a very familiar smell.

The firearms-trafficking task force was created at the start of this decade because of growing concerns about all the bullets flying around Connecticut cities. Illegal guns were bad, said the politicians.

In 2001, the new state police unit had as many as 11 people and a first-year budget of $386,000. The following year, the money was trimmed to $239,000.

When the state budget crisis of 2003 arrived, all the funding was eliminated and the task force limped along on a $50,000-a-year federal grant until that source ran dry in 2005. The unit was folded into another state police office. When someone suggested it might be good to check out whether firearms were being sold illegally at a gun show, they had to get special permission to assign a trooper to the job.

In its initial year, the task force took 379 illegal guns off the streets. By 2005, the number had plunged to 24 firearms seized.

It was about that time that the sounds of gunfire and reports of firearm-related homicides in Connecticut's largest cities began echoing through the halls of the state Capitol. There were warnings about an "epidemic" of gun violence. New Haven's police chief cited a 30 percent increase in the number of shootings in his city between 2004 and 2007.

Suddenly, Democratic lawmakers and Rell found $400,000 to renew state funding for the task force operations. After it was revived, the unit seized more than 656 illegal firearms and arrested at least 37 people on illegal gun-trafficking charges in just 11 months.

Now, the money is gone again. This time, the anti-gang task force has also gotten the chop.

No one is claiming that either office has been ineffective or that gun and gang violence is dwindling.

"I don't think these were cut because we didn't need them as much," said Beckham. "We aren't saying these aren't good programs.

"We're talking about a budget here where savings have to be made," he said, pointing out the state was staring at a two-year gap between revenue and spending of more than $8.5 billion.

But the harsh fiscal realities don't excuse the amateurish, nonsensical bullshit that's characterized this year's budget "process," according to some veteran Connecticut politicians. They cringe when they hear about decisions like ending funding for the two task forces and worry about the potential for deadly repercussions.

As one senior state Republican put it, "The whole fiasco, from beginning to end, has been mortifying for both sides."

The real fear is that this budget story could end up with more bodies lying in the streets.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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