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No More ‘COPS’

Under the HEROES Act, the Community Oriented Policing Services program would receive $300 million to fund the hiring of more police. Democratic and Republican leaders alike remain committed to the ideology of increased funding, even under the guise of reform.

A Metropolitan police officer in Washington, D.C., holds a tear gas launcher during a protest Monday about the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

On May 15, House Democrats passed a far-reaching $3 trillion stimulus bill aimed at rescuing the country from a looming economic depression. Senate Republicans shot the bill down, and Evan Hollander, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, told me that “while we hope to begin negotiations soon, so far the White House and the Senate have been unwilling to negotiate.” The legislation included Democratic priorities in the age of COVID-19: significant aid to state and local governments, new funds for Medicare and Medicaid, and increased hazard pay for frontline healthcare workers. 

Tucked into the enormous bill, known as the HEROES Act, was a $300 million allocation for a program known as Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. According to the budget document, the $300 million would fund additional personal protective equipment for law enforcement and the hiring of more police. On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced nearly $400 million in funding through COPS and the COPS Hiring Program (CHP); the funding will allow law enforcement to make 2,732 hires. 

Criminologists and advocates for criminal legal reform are questioning why Congress wants to expand policing during a pandemic, particularly when other safety net programs face severe budget cuts at the state and local level. Law enforcement is also coming under new, international scrutiny after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, which was captured on video by bystanders and has led to the firing of four officers, an FBI investigation and widespread unrest in Minneapolis and elsewhere. For criminal legal reform advocates, the incident—which began when officers responded to a “forgery in progress” and ended with Floyd pleading  “Please, I can’t breathe”—demonstrates that policing can bring death to even the most mundane interactions and that the footprint of policing needs to be drastically reduced

“It’s fair to ask if we need more police at this moment,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a leading expert on policing and crime at Columbia Law School.  “Crime rates are mostly flat, and cities and counties are broke.”

“Hiring officers now on a federal grant,” Fagan added, “creates burdens and obligations down the line that may be unsustainable and that will divert funding from healthcare, social services, education, basic services like sanitation and transit, or needed infrastructure and housing repairs.”

HEROES doesn’t stipulate eligibility criteria—whether the funds would be for local or state police, or any other specifics. The COPS program would simply provide grants to localities that seek them. 

“COPS is a competitive grant program, and it is not possible to predict in advance what eligible uses localities will propose in their grant applications and which localities will ultimately receive funds,” Hollander said.

Across the country, as the pandemic crushes businesses and obliterates tax revenue, funding for public schools, mental health services and transit are all on the chopping block. Mass public sector layoffs are on the horizon as state and local economies rapidly contract.

Law enforcement budgets, however, remain largely untouched. In New York City, a popular summer youth employment program is being slashed as the NYPD retains its nearly $6 billion budget. Boston’s expenditure on law enforcement actually increased slightly

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he will not cut the police department’s budget, and its chief plans to hire 500 officers, despite the economic downturn. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and other organizations are pushing for a “people’s budget” that would slash funding for police and reallocate it to social services (The Appeal is a project of The Justice Collaborative, which was involved in coalition building around the people’s budget.) The organization wants the police to receive about 6 percent of the City of Los Angeles’s budget, whereas Garcetti’s proposal for 2020-21 has police and fire departments consuming a staggering 70.3 percent of the city’s discretionary funds. 

As Fagan pointed out, continued significant investment in policing comes at a time when crime rates continue to decline. In New York City, the global epicenter of the pandemic, major crime was down nearly 30 percent in April. In Los Angeles, crime was down 25 percent. But Democratic and Republican leaders alike remain committed to an ideology of increased police funding, even under the guise of reform.

This was the genesis of the COPS program. Launched under a broad reform mandate in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, the architect of the 1994 crime bill, COPS largely began as a vehicle to hire 100,000 police nationwide when crime rates were much higher. But by the time COPS was enacted, murder rates had already been falling for years: In 1991, there were 24,703 homicides—an all time high—and then declined to 15,522 homicides by 1999.

COPS was established through the crime bill itself. At work, as always, was politics: Clinton pushed for police hiring, in part, to win the endorsement of the International Union of Police Associations going into his re-election campaign in 1996, according to Wesley Skogan, a policing expert and professor emeritus at Northwestern University. 

“It created a big fund to hire more police officers,” Skogan said. Indeed, according to a DOJ evaluation of the program, it added 60,900 officers in the first five years of its existence.

One focus of the COPS program, particularly under Democratic administrations, was hiring police to follow “community policing” strategies, which were intended to ease tensions between law enforcement and overpoliced neighborhoods. Other COPS initiatives included using more data to map and track crime in urban areas. Community policing strategies, however, were not mapped out with any great specificity when COPS was created in 1994.  

In New York, for example, community policing has meant different things to its NYPD commissioners. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, has hired more than 1,100 officers to pursue such a strategy, assigning “neighborhood coordination officers” to certain precincts to forge relationships with community members and patrol streets on foot. Activist and writer Josmar Trujillo called neighborhood policing “part public relations, part intelligence-building. Neighborhood policing, in fact, solidifies police power .” A version of neighborhood or community policing has also been carried out in many other American cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia

“Different presidential administrations and congressional initiatives have used the COPS office as a vehicle for a wide range of funding and policy directions,” said David M. Kennedy, a professor and director of the National Network for Safe Communities at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

Last year, William Barr’s Justice Department launched a program to aggressively police a select number of U.S. cities: Operation Relentless Pursuit, or ORP. ORP, the Justice Department said, would “intensify federal law enforcement resources” in seven cities with “violent crime levels several times the national average”: Albuquerque; Baltimore; Cleveland; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; Memphis; and Milwaukee.

Just last month, COPS awarded more than $61 million in grant funding to ORP. Of that award, $51 million was spent to hire 214 additional police officers across the seven cities. 

ORP is focused on combating alleged gangs, drugs and violent crime. Criminal legal reform advocates say that ORP will continue the targeting of vulnerable people through the worst and most discriminatory forms of policing, like gang raids

In an opinion piece announcing ORP last year, Barr was dismissive of police reform efforts, blaming them, along with “anti-police rhetoric,” for the violent crime in large, predominantly nonwhite cities. He also warned of a “national crime wave” that ORP would combat.

“The federal government stands ready to follow the lead of local law enforcement on the ground and equip them with the best assets in its arsenal,” Barr wrote. 

Ross Barkan is a writer and journalist in New York City.