President Joe Biden was swept into office amid arguably the largest protest movement in U.S. history, so it’s worth taking a closer look at his chief public safety funding proposal, one that is central to his own legacy on police reform. Biden has promised to “reinvigorate” funding for the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, office with a $300 million investment in putting new “community policing” officers on the street. But funneling Department of Justice dollars toward community policing initiatives and the COPS office is the wrong approach if the federal government truly wants to improve public safety and health for communities in this moment. It will neither drive structural changes to American policing nor tackle the root causes of gun violence in cities that have seen a sharp uptick in shootings since the pandemic’s inception.
Instead, the Biden administration should take a hard look at the history of the COPS office and federal spending on so-called community-oriented policing efforts. Community policing initiatives—which seek to emphasize trust and partnership in solving crime between communities and officers who intimately know the neighborhoods they patrol—were a hallmark of the Obama administration’s post-Ferguson-era reform package, but did not prevent another legitimacy crisis for American policing. But the story of COPS is darker than a benign police reform proven ineffective. It has expanded the federal government’s capacity to bankroll some of the more harmful misadventures in modern American policing.
The COPS office was established by the 1994 crime law to provide federal grants to support training and hiring for local community policing efforts. President Bill Clinton argued that lowering crime was the major challenge facing the Department of Justice and the country, and he identified “community policing” as a new frontier for crime fighting: Police had often been viewed as occupiers, but now they would be woven seamlessly into the fabric of neighborhood life. Initially, COPS served as a vehicle for Clinton’s campaign promise to put 100,000 new community police officers on America’s streets (a goal that was not quite met), and averaged more than $1 billion in annual spending. Biden was one of its chief architects in Congress.
While funding stalled to nearly zero in the mid-2000s, the Great Recession revitalized COPS, when Congress allocated $1 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the office to help local police departments facing budget cuts retain officers. It’s maintained higher appropriation levels since, including over $500 million awarded last year, although the program has not been formally reauthorized by Congress. The office has now funded more than $16 billion for the community policing initiatives of state and local law enforcement agencies.
The rate of federal funding for law enforcement has increased far more than state and local spending, but what has America received for the billions invested in COPS? In a 2001 Baltimore Sun op-ed titled “Bush: Don’t Cut COPS,” then-Sen. Biden called COPS “the most successful crime fighting strategy this nation has ever seen.” He has also claimed that “you can’t find another program as meaningful as the COPS program that has worked so well.”
But there is no universal evidence that COPS has had a considerable impact on violent crime rates, or that it was a leading driver of the great crime decline of the ’90s. A 2017 congressional analysis of research on the effect of COPS hiring grants on crime in the late ’90s concluded that they yielded at best a modest (and potentially no) reduction in crime and may have been less effective in large cities. Another study argued the grants had “little to no effect on crime” in the ’90s. Other congressional research suggested that any potential benefits from crime reduction did not outweigh the program’s cost. One recent, well-designed paper that studied COPS grants through the 2009 stimulus bill (when crime was much lower than in the ’90s, but the economy was in turmoil) found statistically significant reductions in crime. However, the author notes that crime reduction benefits came from maintaining existing staffing levels by avoiding layoffs rather than from adding many new cops on the beat, as was the case with COPS in the ’90s; and that it’s not clear the benefits of the program outweighed the social costs.
While COPS grants’ cost-effectiveness and impact on crime are inconclusive, there is clearer evidence that the office has not served public health and safety in other respects. The COPS office has fueled the rise of police presence in public schools that surged in the ’90s through its Cops in Schools program. Between 1999 and 2005, COPS allocated over $750 million to cities to hire thousands of school police known as school resource officers, or SROs. Less than 20 percent of schools had police in their halls by the mid-’90s, but now most of them do, and this has led to the increased surveillance and criminalization of students—particularly students of color—and the expansion of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” While research has not shown that SROs improve school safety, it has demonstrated that school policing leads to a cascade of collateral consequences for the behavioral health and educational development of children.
Because the provision of the crime bill that created COPS never defined “community policing”—an inherently nebulous concept—the office itself has been able to determine what counts and has put very few restrictions on the nature of police practices and functions it funds. In practice, COPS grants have been used to advance some of the most harmful and aggressive features of modern policing, including the increased militarization of law enforcement and the use of quality-of-life enforcement practices like stop and frisk. Indeed, one of the progenitors of the “Broken Windows” theory has argued that this style of policing is a “core element” of community policing.
In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Washington Post columnist Radley Balko documents how COPS grants were used to hire officers for SWAT raids and specialized tactical units, as departments saw no conflict between strategies that promoted community collaboration in problem-solving and those that emphasized an aggressive, trooplike mentality to fight supposed threats. In The First Civil Right, Naomi Murakawa notes that 60 percent of community policing officers who were surveyed said they spent some, little, or no time on community problem-solving, but 25 percent spent most or all of their time on the “broken windows” style of policing that cities like New York (historically a large COPs grant recipient) began popularizing around the same time as the rise of COPS.
But even when COPS funding has been used for initiatives that are more consistent with the original intention behind community policing, the results have been middling. Policymakers from both sides of the aisle believed that embedding officers in neighborhoods would create more respectful and transparent interactions between police and the public and curb police brutality. COPS dollars went to help support the Obama administration’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, its flagship police reform campaign. An Urban Institute evaluation found that it was not successful in consistently improving police-community relations, much less reducing racial disparities in arrests or use-of-force incidents.
It’s also not clear what unique purpose COPS serves, as one of a number of public safety grant-making agencies housed in the Department of Justice. One congressional study concluded that there was “structural overlap” between the Office of Justice Programs and COPS, and critics have pointed out that other federal programs, like Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, have been used to subsidize the same local law enforcement activities.
At a five-year retrospective on COPS in 1999, Bill Clinton heaped praise on Biden and implored Congress not to let funding for the program expire: “And it is true that we would never have been able to do this without the leadership of Sen. Biden. … You see Joe Biden up here, full of enthusiasm—wouldn’t it break your heart if it turned out to be wrong?” This victory lap would prove to be premature, even by Biden’s own later standards. Biden’s “Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice” claims that COPS “has never been funded to fulfill the original vision for community policing.” But the legacy of COPS is a part of Biden’s own legacy, and it’s unclear where he thinks community policing went wrong, or whether he just thinks we aren’t spending enough money on it.
DOJ grant-making has fueled the growth of militarized and racist tendencies in law enforcement under the amiable name of “community policing” for too long already. Rethinking this failed memento of the Clinton-Biden years could mean reorienting federal public safety spending toward programs that both improve community well-being and shrink the footprint of the criminal legal system. There are more effective and less punitive investments the federal government could make to reduce violence, pursue racial justice, and make communities safer and healthier. President Biden doesn’t have to say “defund the police” to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other advocates who want to divest from policing and invest in communities; his budget can do the talking for him. Federal spending should nurture the seeds of new community-based public safety systems that are germinating through innovative social programs in municipalities around the country—not more COPS.
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