October 3, 2002 | Commentary on Crime
"COPS" Makes for Crooked Cops
Martin Chavez has a problem, and it carries a substantial price
Chavez, the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., may have to find up to $7.6
million for his police department in the coming year.
The city could wind up repaying the federal government $4.1 million
it received through the Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS)
program -- money that Justice Department auditors say the police
department misused. And because of the alleged misuse, $3.5 million
Chavez had counted on receiving this year through COPS might be
withheld. Losing the entire amount would be "disastrous," Chavez
Unfortunately, such "misuse" is cropping up in other communities,
COPS, borne of President Clinton's 1992 campaign promise to put
100,000 new police officers on the street, has been troubled from
the outset. It hasn't come close to fielding that many new
officers. And its objectives -- to curb neighborhood crime by
encouraging innovative and effective policing styles -- haven't
But the worst part is that it's turning some police officials into
criminals -- or at least serial misusers of federal funds.
The bill of particulars against Albuquerque is typical. The COPS
money it began receiving in 1997 was to go to hire more officers.
It wasn't to be used for employee benefits, retiree health care,
training or retention of officers already on the force. But the
Albuquerque police department got into a money crunch and got out
by using COPS grants to replace city money and pay officers already
on the force. Far from putting more cops on the street, the city's
police department actually decreased
Federal auditors found similar problems in El Paso, Texas,
Morehouse Parish, La., Inglewood, Calif., Live Oak, Fla., and even
the campus police force at American University in Washington. In
each instance, the police agencies didn't hire the officers they
promised to hire, didn't retain them as long as required to get the
grants, or spent the money for unauthorized expenses.
A few localities went further.
The police chief of Novinger, Mo., for example, received probation
and was ordered to pay restitution for allegedly keeping COPS
checks for personal use.
In northwest Minnesota, the White Earth Band of Chippewa Indians
got $2 million to team with police from neighboring counties to
curb crime in Indian communities. Instead, the tribe used the money
to set up speed traps, failed to report crimes to surrounding
counties as they had agreed to do, and tried alleged violators in
tribal courts, even though those courts have no power to prosecute
speeding violations against tribe members.
The Justice Department continues to chase $400,000 in misused COPS
money from Oxford, Mich., which disbanded its police department in
1999 after voters twice refused to continue funding it. Local
politicians are scrambling to find a way to repay or reach a
settlement with federal officials, and the former police chief
faces criminal charges, including alleged misuse of COPS
The San Bernardino, Calif., police department got $4.1 million in
COPS money to hire 22 officers. But when a special tax assessment
district the city counted on for funding was dissolved, the
department used the money to make ends meet and ended up with no
new officers. "You've got to do what you've got to do," said police
chief Lee Dean. "If someone wants to say that's a technical
violation of the law, then OK. But I haven't heard anyone say
that." Bad news, Chief. The COPS office in Washington insists it is
The officers in charge of the COPS money in these communities used
it to solve what they considered more pressing problems. The rules
of the program -- that the federal government pays decreasing
percentages of officer salaries until, after three years, the
communities pick up the tab -- became a trap. Communities found
they couldn't afford the officers, so they robbed Peter to pay Paul
until the auditors caught up.
How much more effective is law enforcement for the $10 billion the
federal government has spent on COPS since 1994? Not $10 billion
worth, that's for sure.
Why not take the approach President Bush has recommended? Eliminate
COPS hiring grants and consolidate other federal law enforcement
grant programs into one Justice Department program where money
would be dispensed only to those who have a plan to use it and the
wherewithal to measure their plan's effectiveness.
Anything less does a disservice to those trying to fight crime --
and to the taxpayers who foot the bill.
B. Muhlhausen is a senior policy analyst who specializes
in criminal justice in the Center for Data Analysis (CDA) at The
Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public
policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire