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When Sheriff Donald Sowell wanted to outfit his police cruisers with mobile computer terminals and new shotgun locks, he knew the commissioners of rural Grimes County, Texas (population 25,000), likely wouldn’t be able to fund the purchase from local tax revenue. So Sowell turned to Uncle Sam for help. Enter local Rep. Chet Edwards (D), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, who inserted a $400,000 earmark for the Grimes County Sheriff’s Office into last year’s Justice Department spending bill. The money was routed through the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, better known as the COPS program. The earmark was just one of hundreds of similar appropriations that members of both parties inserted into the Justice bill last year that funneled money to police districts through the COPS program. The Grimes County grant is emblematic of how the COPS program has morphed into a slush fund that members of Congress use to route federal dollars back to police agencies in their home districts. “Having grants for personnel or equipment is like Christmas Day for us,” says Sowell. “It may not be that big a deal for Houston or New York City, but for us it’s a godsend.” The evolution of the COPS program is particularly pertinent now. On June 12 the FBI reported that violent crime jumped significantly nationwide — by 2.5 percent — for the first time since the early 1990s. The COPS program began in 1994 to fulfill one of President Bill Clinton’s most ambitious campaign pledges: to get more police on the beat by slashing the jobs of 100,000 federal employees and using the money to fund merit-based grants to hire 100,000 new local police officers over six years. COPS was also designed to provide training and support for community policing, a philosophy that emphasizes putting police on the sidewalks to engage with citizens, rather than having them cruise around in patrol cars awaiting emergency calls. And the Justice Department’s new grant program was well funded: From 1995 to 2000, the plan received $7.9 billion. At the heart of the program were two types of grants: universal hiring grants, which gave local communities up to $75,000 over a three-year period to fund new police hires, and MORE (Making Officer Redeployment Effective) grants, which gave police agencies money for clerical workers and computers in an effort to free up desk-bound police to patrol the streets. By 2000 the Clinton administration was claiming the program had met its goal of funding 100,000 new beat cops. But hitting that milestone left the COPS bureaucracy with a dilemma — namely, what to do with an office that had accomplished its primary task. “I think it lost its focus and it lost its mission,” says Craig Uchida, who headed the COPS office’s grants administration from 1994 to 1997. “Once the mission to fund 100,000 cops was accomplished, my belief was the office should either close down or develop a new mission.” By the late 1990s, as funding for the COPS program peaked at $1.6 billion, its budget also began to be littered with a new form of grants: set-asides for communities like Grimes County, which gained them not through COPS’ competitive application process but through direct earmarks in appropriation bills by members of Congress. Under the Bush administration the COPS budget shrank steadily while the share of earmarks in COPS grew. The program lost funding for the MORE grants in 2003, and its hiring grants expired last year. In fiscal 2006, nearly three-quarters of its $259 million budget was devoted to direct appropriations from Congress. “It’s turned into a porkfest for members of Congress — mostly members of the Appropriations Committee,” says Thomas Schatz, the president of the advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste, who adds, “The program may have had good intentions, but Congress has subverted those and decided individual members know better where to put a lot of this money.” ALASKAN PIPELINE Of course, one man’s legislative pork is another’s worthy appropriation, one made by a congressional member who best knows the needs of his district. “Congressman Edwards’ position as a senior appropriator is [that] where there is an opportunity to bring back tax dollars to the local community for a worthy project, he’s going to do that,” says Edwards’ spokesman, Joshua Taylor. Edwards is far from alone in using the program to funnel funds home. Take the town of Wasilla, Alaska (population 7,700). Located 45 miles north of Anchorage, on the road to Fairbanks, the Wasilla Police Department garnered $150,000 in earmarked COPS funding last year with help from Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a member and former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Wasilla’s COPS dollars were not for community policing but for improvements to a communications tower and the addition of a backup radio band. And the grant isn’t the first earmark for Wasilla’s two-dozen-strong police force: In 2005 it received $1 million from COPS for mobile computers. Without the federal dollars, “you’d never be able to accomplish these things,” says Wasilla Police Chief Don Savage. “We’re a small community.” And Stevens’ office says such earmarks are important to make sure that rural states like Alaska get their share of federal funds. “When something is a quote unquote earmark, it’s members of Congress saying to the executive side, �We think there’s a need here that you haven’t recognized,’ ” says Stevens speechwriter Lindsay Hayes. But veterans of the COPS program see it differently. “Simply because of [Stevens'] position in Congress, does that entitle him to divert moneys when there may be greater needs elsewhere?” says Joseph Brann, a former director of the COPS program in the Clinton administration. “The bottom line is, it’s pork barrel politics. That’s the shame of it.” Carl Peed, the current director of the program, declined to be interviewed for this article, but Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, notes that “COPS has fulfilled its original purpose to hire 100,000 new police, and as a result, the Justice Department and the administration stopped asking for money to hire additional officers.” The numbers reflect his point. For example, for next year’s budget the administration requested that earmarked technology grants — more than half of the current COPS budget — be cut to zero. GETTING OFF THE STREET Those who oversaw the program during the early years of the Clinton administration express dismay at its decline in stature and shift in focus. And while the program had its critics, it was generally viewed as a success. The decline in the COPS program has been accelerated by the government’s post-2001 attention to terrorism, which has meant billions of dollars in new aid to local agencies for terror investigations and disaster preparedness. “Police feel the lack of such [anti-crime] programs has been disruptive in their efforts,” says Janet Reno, who was Clinton’s attorney general. “We watched crime go down [during the 1990s], and now it’s started back up, and I think it’s important that we focus on crime as well as terrorism.” That sentiment is echoed by Ed Davis, superintendent of police in Lowell, Mass. At one time his department had 100 officers funded through the COPS program. Davis says extra manpower and the community-policing strategy the department used knocked the local crime rate down by 60 percent. Now that funding has evaporated with the current emphasis on homeland security. “[T]he message from the federal government right now is, let’s go back to the military model of policing and have everyone running around with SWAT outfits and machine guns,” says Davis. Former COPS Director Brann says he’s not surprised that Congress has slowly directed the program’s budget away from community policing and hiring and toward its own specific priorities. He says that Congress had attempted to divert money from merit-based hiring programs almost from the start. “From the onset of the program, we looked at what historically had gone on with grant programs,” says Brann. “And we were very steadfast in trying to thwart [earmarking] through the appropriations process.” The issue isn’t whether locking shotgun mounts in Texas or a radio tower in Alaska aren’t worthy projects, says Uchida, the former COPS grant administrator. “You look at the 17,000 police agencies that don’t get any money,” he says. “It really comes down to the most sophisticated police departments know how to work the system.” Uchida should know. Now a private consultant for Justice & Security Strategies in Silver Spring, Md., he advises police departments on how to win earmarks from their local congressional representatives. “I tell them now that’s the only way you’re going to get money,” he says.
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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