The federal government is bailing out cash-strapped law enforcement agencies in the Sacramento region once again, this time at levels not seen anywhere else in the nation.
In all, 58 officers will be hired by local police agencies over the next three years, thanks to nearly $22 million in U.S. Justice Department grants.
The biggest winner was the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, which received $11.3 million, the largest grant in the country. That money will pay for 25 deputies who will be assigned to a new task force tackling youth and gang violence.
The issue is "the biggest crisis facing the region, not only from a public safety standpoint, but from a youth survivability … perspective," Sheriff Scott Jones said.
He said the grant will allow the department to take on youth violence at levels not previously seen by the agency.
The Sacramento Police Department was given $8.1 million, the fourth-highest award in the nation. The money will pay for 25 officers, with priority hires going to the 42 cops who were laid off three months ago in an unprecedented cost-cutting move at City Hall.
The Placer County Sheriff's Department received $2.6 million and will hire eight officers. Sheriff's officials said they intend to use the money to launch anti-drug initiatives, increase outreach to minority communities and expand investigative units.
The grant money will pay for the officers' salaries and benefits over a three-year period. Agencies must retain the officers for at least a fourth year.
The government's funding decisions were made on the basis of agencies' crime rates, economic challenges and community policing efforts, according to the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program.
Bernard K. Melekian, the program's director, said initiatives by Sacramento's law enforcement agencies to combat youth and gang violence set those organizations apart in the application process. Fewer than one in 10 agencies that applied for $243 million in aid were awarded money.
This marks the third year that local law enforcement agencies have received windfalls from the federal government.
Last year, 61 officers in the region were funded through COPS grants – 50 in the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department alone.
In 2009, the Sacramento Police Department received money for 35 cops, a grant that helped ease the blow of the police layoffs approved by the City Council in June. As a result of the new grant, roughly one of every 14 city cops will be funded by federal dollars.
Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel said it was unclear how the new officers in his department will be deployed or when they will be hired.
While the hiring process could begin as soon as the City Council votes to accept the grant, City Manager John Shirey said the money "will help offset current and/or future budget shortfalls."
That means city officials could hold off hiring officers until passage of the 2012-13 budget next summer.
In addition to the 42 cops laid off earlier this year, the Police Department has cut more than 80 uniformed officer positions from its ranks over the past three years. With 657 officers, the department's staffing is at 1990s levels.
Regardless of when the money is spent, "there is no doubt Sacramento is safer" because of the grants, Mayor Kevin Johnson said.
"In these challenging times, these grants are certainly very, very necessary," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.
Several specialty units – including the Police Department's gang and narcotics teams – were axed this year.
Barbara Falcon, a Valley Hi resident who works with Neighborhoods United, a group that organizes neighborhood associations in south Sacramento, said she is hopeful that the grant will lead to revitalization of the department's Problem-Oriented Policing units.
"They are the liaisons between the neighborhoods, the neighborhood watches and the police," Falcon said. "And right now, they're kind of floundering."
In the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, many of the 122 deputies laid off two years ago have been rehired. As a result, department officials said they have more flexibility in how they intend to use their grant award.
Jones said the new youth violence division will include deputies already on the force. It will focus on analyzing intelligence gathered in gang investigations, policing gang activity and youth outreach.
"It will give us an unprecedented opportunity to really turn the tide on youth and gang violence," he said.