Public safety services are generally the last to suffer budget cuts when cities face hard times, but the still-struggling economy has forced many local governments to do just that, according to a joint report from three local government associations. As a result, some police departments are making difficult choices about how they can continue to protect the public.

Despite their status as core services, police and fire departments are being cut back in 63 percent of cities and 39 percent of counties responding to a July survey by the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo), National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors. "For some communities, this means fire and police stations that are closed and the potential for reduced capacity to respond to emergencies," the report states.

In July, Oakland, Calif., cut 80 officers from its police force, which equated to a more than 10 percent reduction of the department, says Holly Joshi, the department's public information officer. "We had to make some tough decisions," Joshi says.

First, the department transferred officers from specialized units, such as intelligence gathering, to the patrol division, where most of the cuts had occurred because of the prevalence of low-seniority officers in that division. "We had to make sure that we were there when people pick up the phone and call 911 in an emergency, a life threatening emergency," Joshi says.

However, the department also had to stop sending officers to respond to calls on a list of lower priority crimes, including burglaries, vandalism and noise complaints. "Those are the calls that we will be asking citizens to do online reporting," Joshi says. An investigator reviews the online reports to determine if they should be followed up on, Joshi says.

Despite the department's efforts to compensate for the lost officers, the Oakland Police Officers Association, which is the union representing the department's officers, claims that crime has increased 9 percent since the officers were laid off, a claim the police department is trying to verify, Joshi says. "It is possible," Joshi says. "I think it would be unrealistic for us to think that there would be absolutely no impact on the city with 80 less police officers."

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