As the nation struggles to recover from the Great Recession, federal and state grants are rapidly drying up, leaving previously well-funded county police units such as the successful cold case squad to fend for themselves.
The two-person cold case unit closed at least three high-profile rape cases — all dating back to the early 1980s — in the past four months by re-examining DNA. But a pair of federal grants secured for such efforts in 2006 and 2008 expired last year and will not be renewed, said cold case detective Joe Mudano in a hearing before the County Council’s Public Safety Committee Monday morning. The grants, which totaled $400,000, were used to pay for both the unit’s costly DNA tests and officer salaries since the unit was formed in 2005, Mudano said.
“We’ve applied for [the grants] through the same funding, through the National Institute of Justice, but their resources, along with everyone else’s budgets, is getting cut,” Mudano said after the hearing.
On the upside, an increase in the department’s crime lab staff and new laboratory space set aside on the top floors of the new public safety headquarters building will allow county technicians to take on the cold case unit’s DNA needs. The lab’s DNA analysis staff has grown from one analyst in 2002 to six today, said Ray Wickenheiser, director of the department’s Forensic Services Section.
Cold cases typically were contracted out to independent labs to allow the county’s lab technicians to prioritize breaking cases and maintain a quick turnaround for evidence needed in court cases, Wickenheiser said.
“But as we build capacity — and as you’ve seen in the new lab we have that capacity — we will be able to do more and more cold cases and to expand the capabilities we have,” Wickenheiser told the council Monday.
Case backlog at the lab has dropped from more than 400 in 2002 to an average of 50 or 60 cases today, Wickenheiser said.
Grants in general have dried up as federal budget deficits continue to trickle down to state and local governments, said County Councilman Phil Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee.
A $2.7 million U.S. Department of Justice grant funding a joint Montgomery and Prince George’s counties gang task force was not renewed in 2012, and a more recent state grant from the Governor’s Office on Crime Control & Prevention also has dwindled as more agencies scrambled for the remaining money.
“Generally the availability of grants is tighter, and if there are the same amount of grants, they are likely to be on the smaller scale,” Andrews said, discussing the $1,898 received last week from the governor’s office for new body armor. A typical safety vest can cost the county in excess of $900, Andrews said.
“Very few grants are that small, even when they’re being divided up by multiple partners, most grants the county receives are $50,000 to $500,000 range,” he said. “We’re not going to turn it down, but we’re not going to go out and ask for a grant for $15,000 if it isn’t worth the staff time to apply for it.”
Montgomery County police was among 20 Maryland police agencies to receive a portion of the current grant, which totaled $49,051 for 2013, said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the governor’s office. Seventeen agencies applied for the same grant last year, Toohey said.
“The state and the federal government are seeing less income,” Toohey said. “We’re also coming off another recession year, so there’s less money to give out. It’s that basic.”
In light of declining grants, the council is sure to use what grants it has left to greater impact, Andrews said, pointing out the council’s move to re-allocate a $248,894 grant originally awarded to county police by the U.S. Department of Justice through its Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant in 2009.
Although County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) planned to use the grant to fund a county police helicopter program in 2009, the council voted against that plan and decided instead to use the funds to build a new evidence locker in the public safety headquarters building in Gaithersburg. The council voted unanimously in favor of the redistribution of funds after a public hearing Tuesday in Rockville.
“Everybody needs to look at their budgets and focus on the priorities to an even greater degree,” Andrews said. “I think we do a good job of that here in Montgomery County.”