About those COPS

Posted: May 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Remember Bill Clinton? Before life got serious, Bill Clinton used to work incredibly, just amazingly hard fixing the problems that plagued America. It did not escape his capacious concern that we had a serious crime problem. And so, as he did on so many other issues, President Clinton presided over meetings running late into the night, consumed heroic amounts of Domino's Pizza and came up with a plan! What we needed, he declared, was a new federal program to fund 100,000 new cops on the streets by October 2000.

Who could oppose such an idea? The president even came up with an acronym that would spell it out -- Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). See, he wasn't kidding about how hard he worked.

The president presented his idea to Congress, where it passed because most benevolent-sounding legislation does pass. Those who express doubts and misgivings are usually denounced as being against the professed goal (like education, justice or safe schools), rather than against the particular legislation in question. And so the program became law and the money (our money), more than $10 billion, was doled out.

Did crime decline? Well, as a matter of fact it did. Did the program contribute to this drop in the crime rate? Very doubtful.

The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services performed a self-audit and concluded that the program was working out exactly as planned. The Heritage Foundation, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Justice Department have concluded otherwise.

First, there is the number of cops hired. The Justice Department estimates a maximum of 57,000. But as the Heritage Foundation's David Muhlhausen cautions, this number is high because, under this law, the federal government pays a steadily declining share of each new officer's salary, forcing localities to shoulder an ever larger part. Some communities are responding by eliminating the jobs.

It is also difficult to know for sure how many cops were actually put on the streets through this law because, according to the complex formula devised by the Clinton administration, every $25,000 in new spending by a police department on technology is interpreted to "free up" one officer to pound the pavement. This is an accounting assumption that makes true measurement awfully difficult. Add to this the fact that the federal government suspects, though often cannot prove, that localities use federal funds to supplant local funds they would otherwise have spent, netting out no new police on the streets.

If counting the number of cops on the street as a result of this grant is tough, judging whether they had any impact on crime is nearly impossible. The nation's crime rate began a steep decline three years before the COPS law was passed. Communities with high minority populations saw the largest reduction in crime, with or without the COPS program.

The legislation's authors planned for COPS grantees to see progress on 11 crime-fighting fronts, including police-youth programs, preventive patrols, code enforcement to limit disorder, dispute mediation and graffiti eradication, among others. According to the Heritage Foundation, research shows increased participation in only two areas -- late-night recreation programs ("midnight basketball") and victim-assistance programs.

This is, of course, small beer in the scheme of things here in Washington. A meager $10.6 billion. But the story has been repeated a thousand times: a nice idea translated into a federal program that spends and spends without the taxpayer ever having any idea whether it succeeds or not. And if anyone attempts to cut the program, he or she is met by phalanx of self-interested grantees.

It will never end. Sen. John Kerry is now proposing that we spend $50 billion over five years on first responders and other homeland defense expenditures. "The federal government," Kerry declared, "has provided too little support, provided too little leadership and provided too little vision for the common defense or our homeland." That's your money he's coveting. And if Kerry is elected and his program is passed, there is only one guaranteed outcome -- we'll never know whether it did any good at all.