Amid all the muscle-flexing in Boston this week ("my homeland security platform is bigger than yours"), it was impossible to hear more than the merest hint or offhand whisper about the demoralizing decline in the fortunes of America's cities over the past few years.

Paralyzed by a war in Iraq that we don't know how to end or win, we're in danger of forgetting completely about the struggling cities here at home.

Bill Clinton mentioned the 300,000 poor children being cut out of after-school programs and the increases in gang violence across the country. And he gave cheering delegates a devastating riff on the impending lapse of the ban on assault weapons and White House plans to scrap federal funds for tens of thousands of police officers:

"Our policy," he said, "was to put more police on the street and to take assault weapons off the street - and it gave you eight years of declining crime and eight years of declining violence. Their policy is the reverse. They're taking police off the streets while they put assault weapons back on the street."

But those brief comments were the exception. A clearer sense of the rot that's starting to reestablish itself in America's cities was offered in an article out of Cleveland by The New York Times' Fox Butterfield on Tuesday. "Many cities with budget shortfalls," he wrote, "are cutting their police forces and closing innovative law enforcement units that helped reduce crime in the 1990s, police chiefs and city officials say."

Cleveland has laid off 15 percent of its cops - 250 officers. Pittsburgh has lost a quarter of its officers, and Saginaw, Mich., a third. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has waved goodbye to 1,200 deputies, closed several jails and released some inmates early. In Houston, police officers are taking up the duties of 190 jail guards who were let go.

This is nuts. We know that low levels of crime and violence are essential if cities are to thrive. Tremendous progress - in some places, like New York, almost miraculous progress - has been made in reducing crime since the crack-crazed, gun-blazing days of the late '80s and early '90s. To even begin rewinding the clock to that time of madness would in itself be an act of madness.

Yet that's what we're doing.

Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore, who co-chairs the Task Force on Homeland Security for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, told me in an interview that budgetary horror stories are coming in from police officials all over the country. There are many reasons, he said, including the recession and the weak recovery that followed, the anti-terror obligations that have fallen to the police since Sept. 11, 2001, and "the cascading effect" of enormous federal tax cuts at a time when the nation is at war. Local taxes have gone up sharply, and services have had to be cut back even as federal taxes have decreased.

"This is all compounded," O'Malley said, "by the fact that there is just less money coming in from Washington" for traditional crime-fighting efforts.

Local police, fire and other agencies have also been affected by the call-up of thousands of military reservists and members of the National Guard. In addition to losing their services, most cities pay the difference between the municipal salaries of these men and women and the substantially lower pay they receive from the military.

In an address to the Democratic convention Wednesday night, O'Malley echoed many other municipal officials when he said police and fire departments are not even getting sufficient help from the federal government to maintain their anti-terror efforts. The first responders, he said, cannot continue to finance their homeland security responsibilities "with increased property taxes and fire-hall bingos."

The crime-fighting difficulties and underfunded homeland security responsibilities are part of a parade of very serious problems that have descended on cities in recent years. Tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration's hard-right ideology have removed much of the social safety net that we managed to weave over the past several decades, leaving us with a swelling population of vulnerable men, women and children. This has had a disproportionate impact on cities, and the outlook, both short- and long-term, is bleak at best.

These are important issues that could be wrestled with if cities were on anybody's agenda.

But they're not.

Bob Herbert is a nationally syndicated New York Times columnist based in Manhattan. He writes on politics, urban affairs and social trends. He was formerly an NBC news correspondent.

© 2004 New York Times News Service

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