Lake Forest, Ill.; Beverly Hills, Calif.; Wellesley, Mass. What do these towns have in common? They’re all affluent big-city suburbs with very little serious crime—islands of prosperous serenity in a dicey world. It would be hard to think of places in the United States that have a less urgent need to field more police officers. Yet one more thing these municipalities share is that in recent years, the federal government gave each of them money to do exactly that.
The funds come from what may have been Bill Clinton’s most ballyhooed domestic program: Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, which he inaugurated in 1994 with a promise that, through federal grants for hiring recruits and buying equipment, it would put 100,000 new police on the streets. As crime rates declined during his time in office, he frequently claimed credit for COPS. In political terms, it was pure gold. By pushing the then old-fashioned conservative idea of cracking down on bad guys with armies of men in blue, Clinton did a huge amount to steal the law-and-order issue from Republicans. At the same time, he appealed to liberals with lots of syrupy rhetoric about “community policing,” which emphasizes promoting good relations between cops and poor urban minorities—two groups that traditionally view each other with suspicion.
After Sept. 11, COPS has an air of fighting the last war. Random street crime looks a lot less worrisome when it’s set against the menace of Islamic terrorism. And the program surely could be seen as draining resources away from the new and more ominous threat. Heritage Foundation analyst David Muhlhausen notes that since 1996, the federal government has spent nearly nine times more on this venture than on all FBI counterterrorism efforts. But none of the rethinking that occcurred in recent weeks has had any discernible effect on the future of COPS. The Bush administration’s budget proposed only a minor trim in its budget for 2002, and both houses of Congress insisted on exceeding the request to authorize more than $1 billion a year.
Such generosity might be justified if the program had lived up to its advertising. But it hasn’t. Even the most basic promise—that it would add 100,000 cops to the streets by the end of 2000—wasn’t kept. A study published last year by the National Institute of Justice figured that COPS will result in a net increase of between 69,000 and 84,600 police officers, a shortfall of 15 percent to 31 percent.
About one-third of the officers in the count, it should be noted, are not new cops but existing ones—who are theoretically freed from paper-pushing desk jobs to chase crooks, thanks to grants to buy computers and other new equipment. The reality doesn’t always match the theory. A 1999 audit by the Justice Department’s Inspector General reported “a high degree of difficulty in establishing that funds under the Making Office Redeployment Effective (MORE) program actually results in additional officers on the street. Specifically, 78 percent of the 67 grantees we audited with MORE grants could not demonstrate they had or would redeploy officers from administrative duties to the streets.” The IG also found evidence that many police departments have no plans to retain new hires once their federal funding runs out. Barring an endless flow of money from Washington, then, the number of cops may fall.
Even the modest numbers estimated by the NIJ researchers overstate the real effect of this effort. Absent COPS, you would not have expected a zero increase in police number in the 1990s. Police numbers have been rising for decades, and it’s safe to assume they would have continued rising at more or less the same rate even without a new federal program. Heritage analyst Muhlhausen calculates that by 1998, the increase over what would have been expected otherwise amounted to less than 40,000 cops. The chief difference is that the new hires were paid for mostly with federal dollars rather than local or state funds.
Many of the new police showed up in places where they were guaranteed to contribute little to improving public safety—simply because the public there was already about as safe as human beings can possibly be. Much of the federal money, true, went to big cities that have more than their share of crime, but a lot of it was channeled to sleepy rural counties and placid suburbs where the only violence is on television. That makes the program politically unassailable by letting every member of Congress claim credit for bringing home the bacon: Since 1994, COPS has doled out cash to more than 12,000 different law enforcement agencies. It has also been a creature of congressional micromanagement. This year’s appropriation bill is long list of small, specific goodies—such as $125,000 for the Green Bay, Wis., police’s GangNet program; $37,000 to the Napoleon, Ohio, police department for “technology upgrades”; and $1.2 million so the Montana Supreme Court can acquire teleconferencing gear. No need is so small or so peripheral that it can be left to local financing. But the idea of targeting money where it can do the most good has no place. NIJ found that on a per-crime basis, big cities get only two-thirds as much money as the rest of the country.
The only consolation for urban residents is that it’s not clear that having more cops would actually reduce their chance of being robbed or murdered. Clinton and other supporters of the program say it deserves much of the credit for the sharp drop in crime in recent years. It may seem like a validation of COPS that the rate of violent crime peaked in 1994, the year it was enacted. But the homicide rate began falling in 1991, and property crimes have been have been coming down since the mid-’70s. Drug arrests, on the other hand, rose in the last decade. Whether COPS had anything to do with these trends is anyone’s guess. A 1999 investigation by the Chicago Tribune that looked at the nation’s 50 largest police departments found “no correlation between the growth in the number of officers and crimes rates since 1993.” The NIJ researchers would go no further than to say, “We cannot rule out the possibility that the program accounts for part of the drop in national crime statistics.”
The lack of any evident connection may be explained in any number of ways. It may be that the number of police added under COPs was too small to make a difference. It may be that the new hires were too widely distributed. Or it may just be that there is no necessary relationship between the number of cops and the number of robbers, which is the view of many experts.
Community policing was supposed to make police more effective by lending them the ever-present eyes and ears of ordinary people. And it may have. But the concept is vague enough that all sorts of activities can be portrayed as advancing it, whether or not they really constitute a change in the way police operate. Certainly more departments claim to be practicing community policing today than a decade ago. But how much that means is open to debate—as is COPS’ role in the change. The NIJ study found only “weak evidence” that the program fostered community policing. In Illinios, the federal funds paid for Department of Natural Resources officers whose duties include teaching children how to fish and putting up deer crossing signs along highways. Many departments that have gotten large amounts of money from COPS, such as New York and Chicago, have been plagued with persistent complaints of excessive force against suspects—the opposite of what community policing promises.
Given the fear of street crime that gripped the nation a decade ago in the wake of the crack epidemic of the ‘80s, dumping a lot of money and police on the problem may have been a defensible response. Today, with terrorism the dominant anxiety and the promise of COPS still unproven, it’s a luxury we can no longer afford.