NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 11, 2005

It was a signature plan of Bill Clinton's presidency: Attack the rising crime rates of the early 1990s by putting 100,000 more cops on America's streets.

Ten years later, the grant program known as COPS (for Community Oriented Policing Services) has given $10 billion to help more than 12,000 police agencies hire and reassign officers. Politicians and police chiefs across the nation have said that COPS is a big reason for the sharp decline in crime rates that began in the late 1990s.

But now, with the largest buildup of local law enforcement in U.S. history winding down, a less flattering view of the COPS program is emerging:

  • Federal audits of just 3 percent of all COPS grants have alleged that $277 million was misspent.
  • Tens of thousands of jobs funded by the grants were never filled, or weren't filled for long, auditors found.
  • And there's little evidence that COPS was a big factor in reducing crime.

Meanwhile, few crime analysts say that COPS grants were significant in reducing crime. Analysts such as Stanford University's Joseph McNamara say that a much bigger factor has been the strong economy, which has kept many young people employed and away from crime.

Of three studies on the issue, only one -- which was funded by the Justice Department --found that the police hiring program was chiefly responsible for drops in violent crime rates among big cities. The General Accounting Office, Congress' research arm, dismissed that study as "inconclusive."

The link between COPS grants and lower crime rates has been further obscured by the experience of cities such as Oklahoma City, which did not participate in the police hiring program -- and yet saw crime rates drop by as much as those in cities that got grants.

Source: Peter Eisler and Kevin Johnson, "10 years and $10B later, COPS drawing scrutiny," USA Today, April 11, 2005.

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