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News Releases on Crime

August 28, 2000

August 28, 2000 | News Releases on Crime

Assessing the COPS Program; Doubters and Backers

WASHINGTON-Aug. 28, 2000-You know you've reached North Pole, Alaska, when you pass the 40-foot statue of Santa Claus. The town of 1,600 near Fairbanks has an 11-man police force run by chief Lonnie Hatman.

Three of those officers have been added since 1994 under a multibillion-dollar federal grants program that President Clinton said would put 100,000 new police officers on American streets by this year.

Hatman said the program has had some benefits, but unless the city's government succeeds in an effort to annex nearby population clusters, when the federal grants run out, so will police jobs. "We just won't have the funding," he said.

In Tooele County, Utah, county commissioners thought they recognized Santa Claus coming to town in the form of a $375,000 federal grant to add more officers in 1997 to the county of 31,000's police force. But then, the commission rejected it.

"We applied for it at first, but after we really sat and looked at it, it was obviously just a big political ploy that was going to become another unfunded federal mandate after the grant expired," said county commissioner Gary Griffith.

Soon after his election in 1992, Clinton began talking about putting 100,000 additional police officers on America's streets by the end of his administration.

The program, begun in 1994, was called COPS - Community Oriented Policing Services - and the Clinton administration credits it with what has been a significant reduction in crime in the United States since the mid 1990s.

Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore uses the COPS program in campaign talks about the administration's successes against crime. Gore said this summer he will seek to expand the program by 50,000 more officers and 10,000 extra prosecutors if he is elected in November.

"Here is my commitment, the toughest, most effective anti-crime strategy this nation has ever seen, more police and more prosecutors to widen the thin blue line between order and disorder," Gore said in a speech in July.

Talk of the thin blue line conjures images of big-city municipal police forces. But one of the largest series of COPS grants went to the City University of New York system - a total of about $13 million to hire campus police.

City University of New York got more federal money under the program than, say, Las Vegas, a city of nearly 1 million people which averages more than 100 homicides a year.

That is just one of the anomalies that became apparent when the program was scrutinized by Scripps Howard News Service in an effort to determine what the COPS program accomplished in the past six years for its nearly $9 billion price tag.

An investigation, assisted by a detailed analysis of COPS records compiled by analysts at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, raised questions about the program's value.

Far fewer than 100,000 police officers have been added under the program.

The number of officers put on the street was 50,139 last year, according to a federal audit of the program. The Justice Department inspector general estimated that fewer than 60,000 officers would be employed by the end of 2000.

In interviews with police chiefs and city managers around the country, it became clear that some of the additions were planned without COPS grants. In some cases, the grants became a convenient federal government hand-out, but didn't affect the size that local police departments would have reached without them.

"We did find that the number of officers being claimed as an increase under COPS was not real, and that the goal of the administration could not and would not be achieved," said former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich.

In some places, officers were hired under the grants, then let go when it became clear that, without federal money, their salaries were too much for local governments to sustain.

The overall number of police officers added in America during the last four years of the COPS program - from COPS grants and otherwise - actually is fewer than the number of officers hired during the Bush administration, according to numbers compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to the bureau, the number of police officers in America of all kinds - including transit police and campus officers - rose from 515,212 in 1988 to 699,906 in 1992, an increase of nearly 185,000.

For the initial years of the COPS program of 1994 through 1998, the increase in officers was from 681,512 to 727,091 - an increase of about 45,500.

Justice Department figures similarly fail to show that the COPS program has led to a significant increase in the number of police in America.

According to Justice figures of officers employed in cities and towns that report crime statistics to the FBI, more police officers were hired in 1990 than in any year of the COPS program.

For the four years of the Bush administration, the Justice Department shows a net increase of officers employed of 9.7 percent. That meant from 1989 to 1992 the number of officers in America rose from 496,000 to 544,000, an increase of 48,000.

For the first four years in which the COPS program has been fully operational, between 1994 and 1997, the increase of officers from the figures compiled by the Justice Department was 10.1 percent. That equaled a rise from 562,000 to 618,000, an increase of 56,000.

The crime rate in comparable cities appeared to be unaffected by whether that city took no COPS money, or millions in COPS money, according to the Heritage computer analysis.

While 30,651 cities and agencies accepted the COPS money, 3,678 cities withdrew grant requests, many after they were approved.

In comments attached to the withdrawals, cities noted their reasons: Redwood City, Calif. officials said, "Financial burden at the completion of grant too great." Advance, Ind.'s rejection said, "Townspeople thought this would eventually raise taxes."

Dodge City, Kan., initially accepted grants for officers, but eventually withdrew from the program. City Manager John Deardoff said the city was having a hard time finding money and qualified people to fill existing gaps in the police department.

The clincher for withdrawing from the program was the "volumes and volumes" of paperwork that followed an initial one-page notice of intent to use a grant, Deardoff said.

Meanwhile, the falling crime rate has occurred for several reasons, according to experts on crime in America. That decline was a result of demographics - the aging of a huge cohort of teenagers - and other factors, like the waning of a crack epidemic that fueled big-city crime, experts said.

"If you look at it nationally, you'd be on very thin ice to claim a reduction in crime as a direct result of the COPS program," said criminologist Stephan Mastrofski of George Mason University. "It is within the realm of possibility that it was a factor in some communities. But it would take a lot more research than has been done so far to convince social scientists."

John Eck, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, will release with colleague Ed McGuire of the University of Nebraska-Omaha this fall a comprehensive study of the research on the relationship between police and crime.

"The evidence that adding more cops reduces crime is, to be charitable, ambiguous," said Eck. "I've not seen any substantive body of evidence that suggests that the COPS program was a major factor in the recent crime drop."

Eck says that a poor economy and a crack epidemic fueled a crime boom in the 1980s, and an improving economy and the waning of crack use led to a crime reduction.

"We studied homicides as an indicator, and homicides actually started down in 90-91," he said. "COPS didn't get started until late 1994, and it was a couple more years before the officers hired were trained and on the street. It is hard to see that it was impacted by COPS."

There are examples of local jurisdictions where officials say the COPS grants have been a big help in fighting crime.

Johnson Link, police chief of Clemson, S.C., said the three officers his department has added helped the town do more community outreach.

Edward Stewart, police chief of New Concord, Ohio, said the program has been a success for his community. It enabled him to add three officers.

He said without COPS, "Our police force would be the same size as it is, but it would have gotten to this size later."

But in other towns, the grants either amounted to freebies for jobs already in the pipeline and eventually picked up by local taxpayers, or the grants briefly beefed up local departments, but were later canceled as needless extravagances.

Sunnyvale Calif., a city of 121,000 near San Jose, originally applied for the maximum grant for six new officers. But that request was withdrawn after a check of what those officers would do to the city's budget by then city manager Thomas Lewcock.

According to a memo written by Lewcock in the mid-1990s, "The federal grant would support only 5 percent of the total budgetary effect of the new programs during the next 10 years, with the remainder having to be supported by the city."

That's because COPS pays only 75 percent of an officer's salary the first year, 50 percent the next and 25 percent in year three, up to a maximum of $75,000 per officer for three years.

In California, each officer costs closer to $100,000 a year, including benefits, training, vehicle and equipment.

"Once you initiate these things, it is not easy to make them go away," Lewcock said. "You end up reducing some other program that had nothing to do with this. When you look at it over time, there is not enough federal incentive to justify it."

As crime rates fell, some towns found they had officers they didn't need and couldn't support.

Anita Lowary, city finance officer of Groton, S.D., a city of 1,200, said it has been nice to add a third officer to the city's force. But to keep him after the grant expires will mean a local tax increase. "People aren't happy," she said.

COPS officials say the program has accomplished much of what it set out to do.

Thomas Frazier, former police commissioner of Baltimore who became head of COPS last year, said, "I don't think there is any doubt there are more officers on the street than there would have been otherwise."

He said the emphasis on community policing under the program has helped departments improve relations with citizens in many cities. Two-thirds of the cities and towns in America got grants under the program, he said.

Frazier said the results speak for themselves: "Crime is as low as it has been in 30 years."

Contact Michael Hedges at HedgesM@shns.com or http://www.shns.com.

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