Concord Monitor: Biden works to restore COPS funds
By Shira Schoenberg
If a student at Hillsboro-Deering Middle School is being bullied, he can turn to Police Officer Amy Collins. If a fight breaks out at the high school, Collins is there.
Hillsboro Police Chief Brian Brown said having a school resource officer like Collins has had a "gigantic impact" on the district. "It allows students to establish rapport with an officer and establish avenues of communication," Brown said. "It's made all the difference in the world."
Collins' position was created using a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's COPS program. She is one of approximately 325 new police officers hired in New Hampshire since 1994 with federal grants from COPS, or Community Oriented Policing Services, said COPS spokesman Gilbert Moore. Other grants helped hire civilians to replace sworn officers on certain duties and purchase technology like laptop computers for squad cars.
Although funding for hiring grants was cut under President Bush, a new bill introduced in Congress by Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, would reinstate it. The COPS Improvements Act of 2007 would authorize $600 million to hire new officers, $350 million a year for technology grants and $200 million a year for community prosecutors.
If the bill passes, Biden said New Hampshire can expect $20 million for new officers, more than $11 million for technology and $6 million for county prosecutors.
That money would be welcomed by local police chiefs, who have received more than $78 million in federal money since the program's inception, although several officials added that relying on federal grants can leave them vulnerable when the money runs out.
Biden said the bill would significantly reduce violent crime by adding another 50,000 police officers nationwide over six years. They would focus on community policing.
"You significantly increase protection in neighborhoods by getting people out of cars and offices and into neighborhoods," Biden said.
Response to rising crime
Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, takes credit for the program.
"I crafted it myself with my staff. It was a totally made-in-my-office deal," Biden said. He said he had been pushing the idea for years and during the 1992 presidential campaign, convinced Bill Clinton to make it part of his platform.
University of New Hampshire professor Ted Kirkpatrick, co-director of the research and development group Justiceworks, said as crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, criminologists, law enforcement officials and politicians were developing new ways to get police officers more involved in their communities.
Biden's longevity in the U.S. Senate and his work on Senate committees gave him the ability to be a strong advocate for the program, Kirkpatrick said. "He thought, one, it was good policy, and two, it was good politics. He was a very central voice in the Senate working publicly and behind the scenes to channel money into COPS' community oriented policing programs."
Under President Clinton, COPS received an average of $1.2 billion a year from the federal budget for its hiring programs. But when President Bush took office, funding was cut by about two-thirds and continued to drop sharply before being eliminated in 2006. The COPS office still receives funding for other programs, but without its signature hiring program, the total budget dropped from $1.633 billion in 1998 to $259 million last year, Moore said.
Sean Kevelighan, press secretary for the White House budget office, said Bush's cuts were part of a reorganization that consolidated 70 crime-related grant programs into four, through which state and local agencies compete for funding. Kevelighan said the new system gives more freedom to state and local police forces over how to use federal money.
New programs, patrols
Not surprisingly, the program's staunchest advocates are law enforcement agencies that benefit from its pool of federal money. And the program has translated into political support for Biden. Recently, three prominent police and fire officials in New Hampshire announced the formation of a "New Hampshire First Responders for Biden" group, basing their endorsement partially on his work with COPS.
In New Hampshire, law enforcement officials said, COPS grants have allowed departments to pilot new programs and put more officers on the streets.
"COPS is perhaps the most successful law enforcement program that the federal government ever partnered with local police agencies to accomplish," said Londonderry Police Capt. Bill Hart, whose department received eight grants totaling $952,000. The department put laptops in patrol cars, built up a school resource officer program, and added seven officers. Hart said he would almost certainly have applied for more grants if funding had not run out.
The Concord Police Department started two new programs with grant money, hiring school resource officers at Concord and Merrimack Valley High Schools and starting a community service aid program, where civilians help with serving paperwork or traffic control. The Concord police received eight grants between 1995 and 1998 for nearly $750,000, which it used for equipment, patrol officers, school resource officers and salaries for civilian employees.
The impact is perhaps even more noticeable in smaller towns. Because COPS sets aside half its grants for places with populations under 150,000, towns such as Northfield and Boscawen do not compete with Boston or Los Angeles.
When David Croft, director of the Merrimack County Adult Diversion Program, was Boscawen police chief, the department had just five officers (including the chief), one of whom was hired with a $66,000 COPS grant.
Croft said in a small community, hiring one officer means a large increase in the town budget. "I was trying to sell another position, and being able to say, 'Here's stats that show we need another officer, and here's a grant that will pay for it' was an easier sell than for me to get on the town floor and say, 'I need a town position and I also need money from the taxpayer,' " he said.
In Northfield, the department of about a dozen officers filled three positions with COPS grants. With new officers, the department was able to send two cruisers on patrol instead of one, conduct "walk and talk" and mountain bike patrols, and focus on high-crime areas or speeding problems, while still being sensitive to taxpayers' needs, said former police chief and current Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard.
But officers recognize the risk of relying on grants. Jon Garvin, president of the New Hampshire Police Association, said he never applied for a COPS grant, although his Newington agency received $8,000 in 1995. Garvin recalled a teacher telling him more than a decade ago, "Those police departments that live by grants will die by grants."
Garvin explained, "It's all fine and dandy for the three years you're receiving help, but when it becomes 100 percent funded by the town, is the town going to take on that funding to keep officers, or will they say now we have to lay off an officer?"
In Dover, the answer was the latter. The Dover Police Department used several COPS grants between 1995 and 2001, totaling more than $1.1 million. Police Chief Anthony Colarusso said four grants went to hiring new officers. But once the money ran out, the city eliminated all four positions, plus one more.
"Basically, it's financial," Colarusso said.
Acting Concord Police Chief Robert Barry said although he benefited from COPS, he would be wary of accepting new grants. "We know the community has financial concerns, and three years from now it's difficult to predict what the financial environment would be," he said.
Although several chiefs said they miss COPS funding, Kirkpatrick, of Justiceworks, said New Hampshire already has a low crime rate and he does not believe losing one federal program will have a real impact.
"Will there be short-term effects? Sure," Kirkpatrick said. "But new funding streams from Washington will open up, and within a short period of time, the chiefs are agile and bright enough to position their communities so they are once again receiving favorable funding from the feds."
Question of effectiveness
Despite law enforcement agencies' enthusiasm, there have been conflicting studies on COPS' effectiveness.
John Lott, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland and author of Freedomnomics, an economic analysis of the criminal justice system, said there is no way to ensure that departments are hiring new officers rather than replacing retirees or filling positions that would be added anyway.
"The COPS program is just a roundabout way of subsidizing certain cities that some members of Congress want to subsidize," he said.
Much of the evidence in favor of the program is based on a 2001 COPS-funded study by researchers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Southwest Texas State University. The researchers pinpointed a decrease in crime per dollar of COPS funding in big cities during the late 1990s. One dollar from a hiring grant contributed to a decline in 5.26 violent crimes and 21.63 property crimes per 100,000 residents, they wrote.
But some political conservatives argue that COPS uses federal money to supplant money that state and local authorities would have spent anyway and shifts the burden of local and state law enforcement to the federal government. They say the program added fewer officers than originally intended, and much of the funding goes to communities with little need for additional policing.
Biden responded that the criticism is based on ideology, not the program's merits. "The argument the right has made is, if we agree it's okay for the federal government to provide funding for law enforcement, we have no intellectual basis for arguing the federal government shouldn't be involved in local education and social welfare," Biden said. "My response is, if every law enforcement officer in New Hampshire did his or her job perfectly, there's not a damn thing they can do about the fact that federal government hasn't secured our borders and there's a major drug problem. . . . The federal government has a responsibility."