August 5, 2003

August 5, 2003 | Commentary on

Time to Retire COPS

We shouldn't be surprised it has come to this, and we shouldn't be distressed about it, either.

 

President Bush has recommended that the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS program, receive no more money for hiring grants. He made the same request last year, but this year, the House of Representatives, at least, has honored it and voted to end all funding for hiring grants.

 

It's not yet known whether the Senate, where the program is more popular, will come to its senses and follow suit.

 

One look at the COPS program, and you can see why it should. First, the federal government has no business paying to hire, train and equip state and local law enforcement officers for their everyday duties. Local police departments need the independence to respond to local concerns without having the federal government looking over their shoulders. And communities have the responsibility to provide for the safety of their people.

 

Furthermore, the program has transformed auditing for the Justice Department into a growth industry. Auditors have turned up literally hundreds of abuses of grants program funds by police departments, local governments and Indian tribes all across America. From small-town sheriffs pocketing the funds to pay off personal debts to big-city police chiefs using them to avoid layoffs, the program has become one big source of local government corruption.

 

Moreover, the program, which began as part of President Clinton's campaign promise to put 100,000 new police officers on the street, never has come close. The most generous estimates of actual new officers hired with COPS grants -- not officers who already would've been hired, not officers who avoided layoffs thanks to grants, and not officers moved from desk duty to patrol thanks to the grants, but new officers -- top out at about 60,000.

 

And that might be forgivable if, as Quint Thurman, a COPS researcher and professor at Southwest Texas State, claimed, the program significantly advanced the concept of community policing. But researchers measured the impact of the program in four areas regarded as critical to community policing -- partnership building, problem solving, crime prevention and organizational change -- and found that while COPS didn't hinder development in these areas, it did little to promote it, either.

 

And even that could be forgiven except for one thing: The grants have done nothing to reduce crime in America. Placing additional officers on the street doesn't reduce crime unless those officers have clear directions to address clearly defined problems. Building up the number of officers -- trying to hit the magic six-digit mark -- means nothing.

 

Nothing more clearly epitomized the problems that pervaded the entire program than the contortions the agency went through to prove otherwise. COPS commissioned a study to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program. It not only insisted on control over the study's findings and conclusions, it placed a staffer on the research team (a point the leading researcher failed to acknowledge in testimony before Congress), and refused to let researchers release the data for independent peer review until forced to do so by a congressional inquiry.

 

Not surprisingly, the study found COPS to be an effective tool against crime. But the General Accounting Office, the government's own auditing agency, reviewed the COPS study and found both its conclusions and methodology seriously flawed. According to the GAO, the COPS survey omitted important variables, specified its models incorrectly, improperly limited the sample of cities in its study and used outdated census information.

 

Six months earlier, The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis conducted its own study of the effectiveness of COPS in 2000 and found it wholly ineffective at reducing crime. When the COPS researchers asked for the data underlying Heritage's conclusions, the data was turned over in 12 minutes. When Heritage subsequently asked for COPS' data so it could analyze the study and try to determine why the two studies came to such different conclusions, it took nearly one and a half years, and the agency still didn't comply until members of Congress insisted.

 

This may sound like classic Washington inside baseball -- gobbledygook of interest only to statisticians, think-tankers and other wearers of green-eyeshade visors. But it goes to the heart of how government resources get wasted. An agency springs up to fulfill a campaign promise. The promise and the campaign fade from memory. The agency then does what it has to do to maintain its standing, even if that means conjuring research to justify its existence.

 

President Bush has said repeatedly that if federal programs "cannot show results, they should be overhauled, or retired." Well, it's time this one be retired.

 

David Muhlhausen is a senior research analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

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