Where are the 'COPS' when you need them?

COMMENTARY Crime and Justice

Where are the 'COPS' when you need them?

Oct 5th, 2000 3 min read

Senior Associate Fellow

To hear President Clinton tell it, crime dropped in the 1990s in part because his administration put "more than 100,000 new community police officers" on the street through the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. But judging from the federal government's own numbers, a "missing persons" report may be in order.

In the first independent analysis of the eight-year program ($7.5 billion through 1998), my Heritage Foundation colleagues and I examined all the data on COPS in the files of the Justice Department. We found that the number of new officers added through the program falls well below the 100,000 mark. At most, it added 40,000 full-time officers between 1993 and 1998 (the most recent date for which complete data are available).

And given that police hires had already begun rising before the program debuted, the true number of COPS police hires may be even lower.

A study conducted by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based, independent research group, confirms our analysis. Funded by the COPS office and published by the Justice Department in August, the Urban study estimated that the net number of officers hired with COPS money totaled between 36,288 and 37,523 by the end of 1998. The Urban analysis concluded that-under the most optimistic scenario-the number of new COPS officers will peak in 2001 at 57,000.

But fishy numbers aren't the only problem. Many COPS grants went to police departments with relatively mild crime problems. In fact, our study found little relationship between crime and COPS money. For example, police departments in Sacramento received more than $76 million in COPS money between 1993 and 1997, even though its violent crime rate was below the national average. Meanwhile, departments in Chicago - a city nearly seven times the size of Sacramento, with the same violent crime rate - received only $47 million. Nashville, with nearly three times as many violent crimes as Sacramento, received only $11.8 million.

Worse, after examining the records of 147 "high risk" grant recipients, the Justice Department found that two of every five used the money to pay officers they would have hired even without federal funding. Using COPS grants in this manner flouts the intention of the authorizing legislation.

Our analysis uncovered other disturbing insights as well:

  • Some agencies added few police officers despite receiving many COPS dollars. Miami's police department received nearly $46 million in COPS grants from 1993 to 1997. Of this amount, $34.4 million went to hiring new officers. But the department expanded its ranks by only 21 officers. That's a cost of more than $1.6 million per officer-which makes those $800 Defense Department hammers look like a bargain.

  • Some funded agencies actually down-sized. Atlanta's police department received $15.3 million from 1993 to 1997, but dropped 75 officers from 1994 to 1998. But the biggest drop came right in COPS' backyard, Washington, D.C.: The capital city's police force received $6.7 million in COPS funds to place more of its officers on the street, yet slashed 595 officers from its payroll.

  • The allocation of funds was highly concentrated. From 1993 to 1997, almost half of the $1.58 billion dispensed to the nation's 315 largest police agencies went to just 10 police departments. The level of funding enjoyed by these 10 agencies was double their share of population (21 percent) or violent crime (24 percent).

Our study is consistent with past studies of COPS. As the Justice Department itself concluded in July 1999: "Clearly, the COPS grants will not result in 100,000 additional officers on the streets by the end of [fiscal year] 2000. Based on projections by the COPS Office, only 59,765 of the additional officers will by deployed by [then]."

Our study also backs the observations of critics such as Lawrence Sherman, director of the Fels Center of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. Sherman claims COPS grants too often go to small, relatively low-crime cities and blames COPS for "putting funds where votes are, not where the violence is."

Intelligent targeting of funds is every bit as important as the number of officers put on active duty. You can add a million new officers every year, but if you put them to work pounding the beat in Mayberry, you won't put a dent in the national crime rate. When you put more "feet on the street," they should be directed to the meanest streets in the country.

That serious crime has declined over the last decade is undeniable. Giving even partial credit to COPS, though, is highly suspect. Any way you look at it, the program appears to be a bust.

William Beach is director of the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy institute.

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