October 3, 2002

October 3, 2002 | Commentary on Crime

"COPS" Makes for Crooked Cops

Martin Chavez has a problem, and it carries a substantial price tag.

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 says.

Unfortunately, such "misuse" is cropping up in other communities, too.

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 been met.

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 in size.

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 funds.

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 a violation.

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.

David 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.

About the Author

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire