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COPS Program Fails To Arrest Crime, Funding Improprieties

by Michael Rigby

Police chiefs and politicians across the nation have hailed the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program as largely responsible for the sharp drop in crime that began in the mid-1990s, USA Today recently reported. But now--10 years and $10 billion later--a more accurate and far less flattering picture has emerged: Hundreds of millions of misspent dollars, tens of thousands of unfilled positions, and little evidence to suggest that COPS played any significant role in reducing crime.

In the 1990s, the COPS program was touted by the Clinton administration as a way to combat crime by putting 100,000 additional cops on the streets. Since then, the program has provided 12,000 police agencies with $10 billion in grants to hire new officers and redeploy others. Much of the money, however, was apparently misused. Audits conducted by the Justice Departments inspector general of just 3% of all COPS grant recipients found $277 million in questionable spending.

Many police departments simply used the money to cover routine expenses. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, for instance, federal auditors found that $7.5 million of the citys $12 million in COPS grants were used not to hire new cops but to offset cuts in the police departments budget.

Others saw the money as a personal windfall. In Novinger, Missouri, former police chief Charles Middleton used COPS money to pay his salary and treat himself to a $6,000 a year raise. He was ultimately sentenced in 2002 to 2-years probation and ordered to pay $53,000 in restitution.

Some of the worst abuses occurred on Indian reservations. The tiny Picuris Pueblo in New Mexico is one example. Between 1995 and 2000, its two-man tribal police department received $728,125 in grants to hire 8 additional cops. Auditors were unable to determine where the money went or whether anyone was hired, however, because the department closed in 2002 due to financial difficulties and the pueblo has provided no relevant documentation. [Indian prisons are notoriously mismanaged. See PLN, February 2005, p. 1 for more.]

In other localities, the audits uncovered questionable spending on an even larger scale, including $13 million in Atlanta, $7.4 million in El Paso, and $6 million in Washington, D.C. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, a November 2003 audit identified $7.1 million in suspicious spending and implied that much of the money was used to cover expenditures that should have been paid for by the local police budget. The audit further found that San Juan--which received $39 million beginning in 1994 to add 813 cops to its 450-man police force--fell hundreds short of its hiring goal. (Specific numbers werent provided.)

And San Juan is not alone. The Justice Department claims that COPS funded 118,000 new police jobs nationwide. However, a 2004 review of justice programs by the White House Office of Management and Budget found that fewer than 90,000 police officers had been put on the street by COPS. A 2002 University of Pennsylvania study put the number even lower--around 82,000.

New York City, the largest recipient of COPS money, for example, received $422 million to hire and reassign 4,808 officers. Even so, the department actually shrank by 321 cops between 1994 and 2004. The reductions came amid large budget cuts following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
In many cases, even when the grant money was used for its intended purpose--to hire more cops--departments couldnt afford to keep them once the grants ran out. The COPS program has been like an open house, with all these officers coming and going at different times, says Christopher Koper, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist. Theres no one time at which all 100,000 are there.

Whats more, few crime analysts think COPS contributed significantly to declining crime rates. A much bigger factor, they contend, is the robust economy, which has kept many young people working and away from crime.
Bolstering their argument is the fact that even cities choosing not to participate in the COPS program saw similar reductions in crime. A case in point is Oklahoma City.

Under the COPS program, police departments were given up to $25,000a year for three years to help pay the salary of each new cop along with additional funding to hire civilians or buy computers and other technology so desk cops could be reassigned to the street. All this free money had a caveat, however: when the grants expired, recipients were obliged to keep the new cops employed on their own dime for at least a year. A big part of our decision [not to participate] was that we knew some portion of the [federal] funding was gonna go away, said Oklahoma City Police Chief William Citty. Instead, Oklahoma City implemented community policing programs in high-crime areas without hiring many additional cops.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, is not enamored with COPS program, either. The group says COPS was too expensive and gets more credit than it deserves for todays low crime rates. Observing that crime rates dropped when COPS grants flowed to a community is not conclusive evidence that the grants helped to decrease crime, asserts David Muhlhausen, a crime analyst for the foundation.

Koper and another University of Pennsylvania criminologist, Jeffrey Roth, say the lack of definitive research on the impact of COPS is due in large part to politics. The Justice Department has avoided a comprehensive assessment, they argue, because adverse findings could reflect poorly on the program. The researchers say they asked the Justice Department three times for funding to conduct research on the COPS program, and each time they were rejected. Neither administration (Clintons nor George W. Bushs) has ever shown the slightest interest in such research, says Roth.

Source: USA Today

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