When President Barack Obama signed the huge economic stimulus bill earlier this year, $1 billion was set aside to help local and state police avoid layoffs or keep their police academy classes intact.
The response has been staggering: Departments applied for more than $8.3 billion in aid, meaning only a fraction of the demand can actually be met.
July will be a nervous month for mayors and police commanders as they await official word on how much aid they will get from the grant program known as COPS. The first award announcements are expected this month.
"You've got to cross your fingers and remain optimistic," said Mayor Ron Dellums of Oakland, Calif.
Dellums said without federal aid, his city could lose 140 police positions, and California law gives few options for raising taxes to keep those officers.
Even before a single COPS grant check has been mailed, Dellums said the huge demand for help shows that without more aid, Oakland and other cities "are going to be confronted with the stark reality that we have to cut back."
In Pontiac, Mich., Police Chief Valard Gross has seen plenty of spending cuts in recent years and is worried that the red ink spilling across local budgets everywhere else means his city will now get less.
"It concerns me greatly. I can't say what areas are most deserving, but I believe we've been hit harder than just about anyone in the country," said Gross.
Pontiac's police force has shrunk by about half in the past five years, down to about 70 full-time officers, Gross said. "We're already in the mode where it's an emergency, but we've been able to reorganize, and my guys are still kicking butt."
The chief has applied for $4 million to fill 40 positions. But Pontiac's big budget troubles represent only a small sliver of the total requests for aid.
More than 7,200 aid applications poured into the Justice Department and, taken together, they say nearly 40,000 cops could be laid off without federal help. There's no way to verify the number; it depends upon the political process in many places, and law enforcement officials are not above presenting their potential losses in stark terms that aren't necessarily inevitable. During the Clinton administration, FBI Director Louis Freeh once claimed a proposed budget didn't contain enough money to buy bullets for target practice; others said, if that were so, it only meant the bureau had misallocated its more than $2.2 billion budget.
By comparison, the last time the demand for money from the COPS or related programs even came close was more than a decade ago.
In the 1996 budget year, police departments asked the Clinton administration for $1.3 billion, to fill 33,388 full-time officer positions. They got almost the full amount.
Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, said this year's response to the grant program "has provided us with a true understanding of the difficulties facing law enforcement departments today."
In part, the spike in demand is a result of the change from a Republican to a Democratic administration. Through the Bush years, the COPS and related programs were gradually cut away by Republicans who saw them as wasteful and argued that the money was used to hire fewer cops than Democrats claimed.
Democrats counter that the COPS grant program deserves some credit for the large reductions in crime in the 1990's and thus has proved its effectiveness.
In addition, unlike former President Bill Clinton's version, the Obama program will pay not only for new hires but also to retain cops who might otherwise be laid off.
Around the country, cities are scrambling to keep police on the beat without raising taxes.
In St. Louis, officials recently said they may have to cut 105 police positions if the department doesn't get enough federal aid. If those cuts are made, the city's police force would be smaller than it has been in about a century.
Mitchel Herckis of the National League of Cities said the initial COPS program was designed to expand local police forces to fight rising crime - Clinton promised to put 100,000 more cops on the street - but the new version has been retooled to try to just hold departments together in tough times.
Emergency response staff is often the last thing city officials want to cut, he said.
"Across the country, holding on to officers is a huge deal for many cities and towns," he said. "Keeping those essential services for folks is the top priority."