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TOP BUFFALO police officials must walk a tight wire these days, balancing their need for personnel to battle a serious level of crime with the fiscal facts of life. They need all the flexibility they can get.

Unfortunately, a City Charter provision and an element of the city's contract with the Police Benevolent Association work to keep the Police Department from delivering the biggest bang for the buck.

One problem is Section 245 of the City Charter, which requires that each of Buffalo's 14 police precincts have a minimum of 44 police officers assigned to it.

That sounds good because theoretically it would keep a city administration from favoring specific neighborhoods. In addition, proponents have always pointed out that 44 is just the minimum, that there is no legal bar to higher staffing levels.

But tough economic times limit the number of police the city can afford. It becomes imperative that each officer be assigned on the basis of the need of the moment, not by some fixed formula.

Mayor Griffin recognized this point at a recent community meeting when he said the two precincts in his home turf of South Buffalo do not need 44 officers. His administration, he inferred, would shift some to high-crime areas if it could.

Section 245 would be hard to dislodge. It was approved by a five-to-three margin in a 1987 referendum in which more than half the voters neglected to participate. Now that the problems it has created are clear, however, City Hall ought to consider giving voters a chance to reverse themselves.

Another block to flexibility is the longtime Police Department practice of assigning two officers to each car on patrol. The PBA contract contains language that requires continuation of all past personnel practices in the Police Department. That language very well could include the two-to-a-car practice, meaning that the any shift to one-to-a-car in lower-crime areas, to free officers for work where it is more needed, would have to be negotiated with a reluctant PBA and not imposed unilaterally.

Whatever the mechanics of change, a Police Department working under budget constraints needs the ability to adapt to conditions. Rochester, which is not without its high-crime areas, uses one-person cars as its standard patrol unit, although tactical forces ride two-to-a-car. Surely, Buffalo must have numerous instances when one-person patrol units would suffice.

City Hall's tougher economic times have started with a shattering mid-year reduction in state assistance, pegged by city finance officials at $5.5 million, including a drop of $4.6 million in general purpose aid and a $900,000 reduction in pension savings.

More than ever before, it becomes necessary that city employees -- including police officers -- be assigned so they can render maximum service to residents. City officials should not be bound by rules that hinder reaching such a goal.

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