WASHINGTON, April 25 (UPI) -- America's streets are no safer, nor are there 100,000 more police officers patrolling them, as a result of former President Bill Clinton's Community Oriented Policing Services initiative, according to a recent report from a conservative think tank in Washington.
David Muhlhausen, the report's author and a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, conceded that while violent crime did drop during the last eight years, it was not attributable to the COPS program, because the drop began in 1991 -- a full three years before the program began.
The intent of the Heritage report was to refute a University of Nebraska study's conclusion that COPS helped cause the fall in violent crime. Muhlhausen contended that the Nebraska study was based on the flawed assumption that more police officers hindered the perpetration of crimes.
The real reasons for the drop, he said, were changes in socio-economic factors -- such as more individuals in the workplace and higher rates of incarceration --changes the Nebraska study did not take into account.
How police officers are deployed is much more important than their numbers, he said. In addition, there is almost universal agreement that the COPS program did not reach its target of 100,000 new officers. The most optimistic projections place current numbers barely above 50,000, he noted.
The goal of COPS was to bring police officers on to America's streets and into a daily working relationship with the people they are entrusted to protect and serve -- what is known as community policing.
John Cohen, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the liberal Progressive Policy Institute, said the program fulfilled that purpose and reduced crime as a result.
"The value of the COPS office was that it served as a catalyst for probably one of the most significant reengineering efforts within American policing in modern history," Cohen said. "It essentially resulted, on a widespread basis, in police organizations moving away from the reactive and random approaches to policing we've seen over the last 30 or 40 years, and pushed local policing agencies to become more information-driven, more community focused, and more proactive," he said.
"To sit here and say that there is no impact on crime (from COPS) when a police agency changes the way they operate is just ridiculous," he added.
While the approximately $8 billion in COPS funding was a boon to state and local law enforcement budgets, Muhlhausen said that local expenditures on crime dwarf COPS federal funds by 40 to 1. The federal government is simply taking credit for something that was largely the responsibility of, and within the jurisdiction of, local municipalities, he said.
Muhlhausen also said that while many of the COPS proponents may be well intentioned, the program was really intended to get some lawmakers re-elected. The brevity of its application form and the fact that it is not necessary to detail where the grant money will go both illustrate the political nature of the program, he said.
"COPS is designed to get as much money out as possible," Muhlhausen said. "In return for getting this money out, Congress gets informed when this money is going to local communities and they end up doing a press release saying 'I helped secure funding for three new officers,' when everybody knows that these officers are never hired to begin with, or there was no increase in officers because the local agency has to supplant the funding, which is against the crime bill."
Cohen admitted that there were political motivations behind COPS, but there are, after all, politics behind all legislation. "I think from a political perspective COPS was a brilliant initiative," Cohen said. "I mean what resounds more from a local political perspective but doing something to address crime? To sit here and to say that there was no politics involved in its creation, and how the COPS office was supported by the administration would just be ridiculous."
However, he said, it worked well politically because it was a significant help to local police forces.
"Prior to the COPS program police agencies operated with technology that was decades beyond being obsolete," Cohen said. "So if you just look purely at the technology that became available through the COPS program, it was a tremendous improvement in the conditions these officers work under."
Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the libertarian Cato Institute, has seen something more ominous behind the program than just government largesse, namely the beginnings of a national police force, something that was strictly left for the states under the U.S. Constitution.
While COPS grants are still being distributed, funds will soon peter out if there is not a reallocation of funding in the near future. One piece of legislation that would extend the bill, according to Muhlhausen, would require that at least half of all new funds must be used to renew expired grants, keeping local police departments on the government dole.
"It creates an entitlement for localities," Muhlhausen said. "Once you get a COPS grant you are entitled to have to keep the federal government funding your police officer. This is sort of moving us toward a national police force, something our founding fathers never intended."
Jeffrey Roth, a criminology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and former analyst of COPS at the liberal Urban Institute, agreed that dependence on federal funds is not a good thing, but he said there is no indication of onerous federal control in this instance.
"I'm not personally troubled by it because if I thought there were tight federal control and coordination of what local departments do, I would be," he said. "But it is pretty clear that there is not the type of coordination that would resemble anyone's notion of a national police force. In fact, the COPS program was created to promote community oriented policing, and the very essence of that is to try to devolve the control of police to the neighborhood level."
Rather than bringing local and federal law enforcement entities closer together, Cohen said, COPS actually establishes clear boundaries between the two.
"The worse thing that could happen in this country would be if we were to have weak local police departments and one strong federal police agency," Cohen said. "I think (COPS) does just the opposite."
Cohen finds it ironic that the same people who are arguing for a strong homeland defense during the war on terrorism are opposed to creating strong local police departments, exactly the ones in the best position to keep America safe from terror.
"I find it intriguing that the conservative Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute are more concerned about building strong local police departments with federal dollars -- which will, in fact, provide a strong system of checks and balances -- than they are concerned about pumping billions of dollars into federal agencies during the war on terror, essentially creating a national police force," he said.