WASHINGTON — On Feb. 26, 1988, a young policeman named Eddie Byrne was shot in the head five times as he sat in his patrol car in New York City.
The murder of the 22-year-old rookie quickly prompted a national outrage. Twenty years later on Capitol Hill, Byrne's name has become synonymous with fighting crime. After Congress created the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, the federal government began steering hundreds of millions of dollars to states and cities to help thwart drug traffickers and to buy equipment, everything from armored vests to in-car cameras.
But now the grants have come under assault: A year after he sought without success to junk the program, President Bush is asking Congress to approve less than a quarter of the grant money it provided in 2002. The White House gives the program poor marks, saying it has been unfocused and lacking in accountability.
Those are fighting words on Capitol Hill, where the battle over the Byrne grants has become one of the first budget fights of the year. Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa are teaming up to oppose the cuts.
Bond called it "a vital program" and criticized the president's budget, saying it "does not invest enough money to support our state and local law enforcement in their efforts to protect our communities from gangs, drugs and violent offenders."
The state's senior senator has referred to Missouri as "the methamphetamine capital of the United States," and the numbers would appear to back him up. In 2007, Missouri had twice as many meth lab seizures than any other state. Indiana ranked second, with 620 lab seizures, while Tennessee ranked third, with 559. Neighboring Kansas reported 98 lab seizures.
"We feel like the mom-and-pop meth lab phenomenon kind of originated here in Missouri," said Lt. Tim Rousset of the Missouri Highway Patrol. "And we just do a better job of being proactive and accounting in our numbers."
The politics surrounding the Byrne grants are producing odd bedfellows in Washington. While Bond finds himself at loggerheads with a president of his own party, some liberal Democrats have joined the Bush administration in raising questions about the value of the grants.
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has been among the most persistent critics. She said that the drug task forces financed by Byrne grants are subject to little federal oversight and that some of them have used racial profiling to pursue drug dealers. In one case, in 1999 in Tulia, Texas, dozens of people were sentenced to decades in prison based on the uncorroborated testimony of one drug task force officer. Most of them were pardoned four years later, and the officer was convicted of perjury.
In 2005, the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget said the Byrne program lacked goals, solid management and planning. Since 2002, the program has been cut from $900 million to $170 million. Bush is now proposing to spend $200 million on the program in 2009, while Harkin and Bond are proposing to return to $660 million.
"Every year the Byrne grants are slashed, we run the risk of keeping more drugs and criminals on the street," Harkin said.