The Boston Police Department could be forced to lay off as many as 200 police officers because of cuts in state funding, wiping out hiring efforts that strengthened the force after homicides hit a 10-year high in 2005, according to two officials.
It would be the first time in 27 years and only the second time in history that the city lays off police officers.
City budget officials, anticipating large reductions in state funding in the current and coming budget years, have instructed city departments to submit draft budgets with cuts of between 7 and 10 percent. The two officials, who were briefed on budget deliberations and spoke on the condition of anonymity, warned that the Police Department cannot avoid significant layoffs if it is forced to make deep budget cuts.
Layoffs may mean that the current academy class of 29 police recruits would receive pink slips on graduation day in May. The remaining layoffs would have to come from the ranks of about 2,241 officers, including 37 recruits who joined the force in November.
Also facing layoffs under the draft budgets are Boston firefighters and teachers.
The Fire Department has already canceled a class of recruits who were supposed to begin training a few weeks ago and is planning to cancel another class scheduled to start in the spring. It is unclear how many additional Fire Department employees would be cut to reach its target budget, which like the Police Department budget, is 7 percent lower than the current budget.
The Globe reported last week that the School Department may be forced to eliminate several hundred positions this year.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino declined to comment yesterday on budget cuts, but through a spokeswoman played down the threat of layoffs, saying nothing has been finalized. Department heads were scheduled to submit their plans yesterday, but Menino will not make final decisions on those plans until April. His office would not release the draft budgets yesterday, saying they are preliminary.
"There is nothing official at this point, and it is way too premature to determine the impact on any department, including the Boston Police Department," said Dorothy Joyce, Menino's spokeswoman.
But with Governor Deval Patrick warning of additional budget cuts in the current fiscal year - $1 billion more on top of the $1.4 billion he already slashed - the draft budgets may be closer to reality than city officials had hoped.
They provide a sobering glimpse of how Patrick's cuts will affect basic services such as public safety and education, not just in Boston, but in municipalities across the state.
Fiscal watchdogs say the only way to blunt the threatened cuts to core services is through legislation that provides alternative revenue sources, including local meals taxes, or cost-cutting avenues, such as the ability to negotiate better health insurance premiums without having to renegotiate with public sector unions.
"It's going to depend on what other tools are made available by the Legislature and governor," said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded watchdog group. "With that kind of magnitude of cut, there's no way around reducing your workforce."
Boston has introduced such measures repeatedly on Beacon Hill, but the initiatives have never passed.
"Unfortunately, the city does not have the ability to raise its own revenue like most other cities we compete with across the country," Joyce said.
The last time the city faced such deep cuts to basic services was in 1981, when the passage of the tax-limiting Proposition 2 1/2 measure prompted Mayor Kevin White to lay off more than 260 police officers and about 150 firefighters, and shutter seven police substations and three firehouses.
Police officers had been fired once before in a political scuffle in 1919, when Governor Calvin Coolidge dismissed 1,100 officers who went on strike to protest the commissioner's refusal to recognize the officer's union.
Since 2005, when the homicide toll in the city reached a 10-year high of 75, the department has increased the force by roughly 200 police officers. The additional manpower allowed Commissioner Edward F. Davis, who was hired in late 2006, to beef up the detective ranks with 60 new investigators, create squads of six officers who patrol hot spots in the city, and add more district patrols.
During that time, crime has fallen. In 2008, major crimes fell by 9 percent, there were fewer shootings, and the number of homicides went down to 62, a 17 percent drop from 2005.
Davis declined to comment yesterday on the budget cuts his department is facing or how they could affect the department's staffing levels, but he acknowledged that he is worried.
"Everyone knows that if your budget is 90 percent personnel and you sustain deep cuts, then personnel would be on the table," he said. "At this point in time, it's not something that I can comment on, because I don't know what those numbers are going to be."
The Police Department, which has a budget of $281 million, would have to cut $20 million to reach the 7 percent target imposed by Menino's budget officials. Personnel accounts for 88 percent, the eighth largest proportion among the 35 agencies required to submit budgets yesterday.
Davis said he is looking to the federal government, under the new Obama administration, for help.
Asked whether he is worried the city's crime rate could climb if officers are let go, Davis said, "That's always a concern, but I think that the challenge that we have is to concentrate on those strategies that are showing dividends and cut back on strategies that don't work."
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who works closely with police, said the cuts, if finalized, could not come at a worse time.
"We need more police, not less," said Brown, cofounder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition.
Brown said he believes crime is declining in part because of the community policing initiatives that the additional personnel allowed and because of officers working with faith-based programs that are concentrated on high-risk youth.
"When you have cuts, my fear is you'll drive the officers off the street and back in the cars," he said. "That will erode the gains that we've achieved in terms of police community relationships."