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Take COPS off the critical list. The Clinton administration program, which gives money to local police departments to hire more officers, was believed to be a certain casualty of President George W. Bush’s pledge to slash government spending. But sources close to the Bush administration indicate that there has been a slow change of heart regarding Community Oriented Policing Services, and that the $8.8 billion program may be worth salvaging. During his campaign last year, Bush — echoing sentiments shared by many Republicans — promised to eliminate the grant program. Critics have long complained that the 1994 initiative to put “100,000 cops on the street” was ineffectual, badly managed, and politicized. Former President Bill Clinton, however, got a lot of political mileage out of COPS, frequently citing it as a factor in the drop in the nation’s crime rate during his administration. In fact, on his last day in office, Clinton used the occasion to announce that he had funded an additional 10,000 officers. The political appeal of the program has placed the Bush White House and the Justice Department in somewhat of a box. Cutting COPS outright would hand Democrats a potent issue to exploit. “Its attractiveness is cosmetic,” says Heritage Foundation crime policy expert Robert Moffit. “Who wants to deny money to police officers?” Last month, when the White House made clear that the Justice Department would have to lop more than $1 billion from next year’s budget, the Democratic National Committee wasted no time jumping to the defense of COPS, saying Bush would take “100,000 cops off the streets” to pay for the tax cut program he is pushing in Congress. The political calculus isn’t the only reason the Bush administration might want to keep the program around. COPS is popular with police unions. The largest police union in the country, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), unexpectedly endorsed Bush for president last year even though COPS has helped it increase its ranks. The national order’s legislative director, Jim Pasco, says he has been lobbying the White House and the Justice Department, which oversees the program, to keep it intact. “I don’t get a sense of hostility [about the program],” Pasco says. “I sense they are still trying to work their way through it. I believe they want it back. I think they were surprised at the degree of service it provides.” Pasco says his effort has been aided by the FOP’s strong relationship with Attorney General John Ashcroft, one that dates to Ashcroft’s days in the Senate. “We’ve supported him. We have always felt we had his ear and we continue to have it,” Pasco says. A BUDGET CUT SURVIVOR? The internal debate over the future of COPS comes at a time when the Justice Department is under orders from the White House to trim its $20 billion budget by about five percent. While Ashcroft said last week that the department will be able to stay at about the “same levels of spending” as the current budget year, substantial increases in funds for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration mean that the ax will have to be wielded somewhere else within the massive bureaucracy. The likeliest target lies in the Office of Justice Programs, which oversees $4 billion in grants given to state and local governments that cover a range of criminal justice issues and programs, including those focusing on drug-related violence, gangs, and juvenile delinquency. COPS, however, isn’t part of that division. Under the Clinton model, the program has been operated as a stand-alone office separate from the Justice Department grant-making machinery. The COPS office has its own public relations department, its own congressional lobbying staff, and a mission that often took its cues as much from the White House as Main Justice. Its critics called the office top-heavy, wasteful, and overly obsessed with getting to Clinton’s stated goal of funding 100,000 officers, even if that appeared unrealistic. “They were salesmen reduced to a cheap bumper sticker, and they had to stick with the message on the bumper sticker,” Moffit says. If COPS is kept around by the Bush administration, one likely alteration will involve stripping the office of its autonomy, folding it into the Office of Justice Programs, and putting it firmly in the control of the Attorney General’s office. The former director of the Office of Justice Programs, Laurie Robinson, says the idea makes sense. “The tendency of federal bureaucracies is to guard their programs and operate within small Balkan republics,” says Robinson, who is now a professor at the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “I would keep COPS but fold it into the Office of Justice Programs. That would stabilize the financial stewardship and also de-politicize its work in the post-Clinton era.” Last year, separate studies conducted by two outside groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum cited flaws in the management of the program. Both the Heritage Foundation and the Urban Institute concluded the program would, in fact, end up accounting for less than 60,000 officers during Clinton’s presidency — not the 100,000 that Clinton claimed. The Heritage report also criticized the program for giving money to rural police departments that didn’t need it at the expense of urban areas with a greater need. A third review, conducted by the Justice Department’s inspector general, found that the COPS office was doing a poor job of overseeing its grant money, allowing police departments to apply the funds for uses other than hiring new police officers. “There were some significant issues in the way certain grantees were using the money and the ways the overall program was managed by the Justice Department bureaucracy,” says Michael Bromwich, the former DOJ inspector general who is now a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. No final decision on the fate of the COPS office is expected soon. Justice Department officials say that specific funding priorities won’t be identified by the White House until April.

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