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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Importance of Preserving Critical Funding for Community Policing



June 3, 2015

Courtesy of Stuart F. Delery, Acting Associate Attorney General

The Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services provides essential support to state, local, and tribal police departments.  Led by a former police chief who served for over 28 years in the Oakland and East Palo Alto Police Departments, the COPS Office is one of the nation’s foremost resources on building trust and mutual respect between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.  It has worked with hundreds of police departments to provide training, lead collaborative efforts to improve policies and practices, and coordinate emergency assistance in response to a crisis.  It also administers grants that have allowed state, local, and tribal police departments to hire and retain an additional 126,000 officers, focused on top national priorities like preventing terrorism and violent crime.

Law enforcement organizations and civil rights leaders have praised the COPS Office’s work.  And its work is all the more critical given the tensions that recent incidents in Baltimore, Ferguson, North Charleston, and elsewhere have laid bare.

But instead of maintaining or expanding the COPS Office’s programs, the budget that the House of Representatives is about to consider would effectively eliminate them.  The White House Office of Management and Budget recently released a letter to the Hill expressing serious concerns about the House budget proposal.  It would cut all funding for the COPS Office’s training and critical response efforts, as well as funding for advancing community policing innovation in the field.  It would eliminate the COPS hiring grants.  Almost all of the existing functions of the COPS Office would lose their entire budget at the start of the next fiscal year.

The proposed budget relocates the funding for peripherally related programs currently run out of other offices to the COPS Office.  But none of that money would fund the government’s core efforts to support community policing.  The COPS program is just one of many examples of the troubling, short-sighted cuts that result from Congressional Republicans’ insistence on maintaining sequestration funding levels in their FY 2016 budget. Sequestration was never intended to take effect: rather, it was supposed to threaten such drastic cuts to both defense and non-defense funding that policymakers would be motivated to come to the table and reduce the deficit through smart, balanced reforms.

Gutting the COPS Office would result in an estimated 1,300 fewer officers in cities and towns all across the country and diminish the capacity of the nation’s first responders.  Its full impact, however, would go beyond the loss of law enforcement personnel safeguarding communities.  That impact is best understood by looking at the kinds of remarkable support for police departments that also would be lost.

For example, after a dramatic increase in officer-involved shootings in 2011, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff recognized a problem and called the COPS Office for help.  As part of a multi-year, voluntary collaborative review process, the COPS Office identified 75 findings and made recommendations that the department could implement to reduce the number of officer-involved shootings.

Three years after the initial report was issued, the Las Vegas department has implemented almost every recommendation.  Officer-involved shootings involving unarmed suspects have been significantly reduced.  The use of tasers, pepper spray, and batons has declined.  And the number of arrests has gone down, while public safety and community relations have improved considerably.

Las Vegas is just one of the jurisdictions that have benefited from the COPS Office’s expertise.  Large cities like Philadelphia, regional centers like Spokane and Fayetteville, and smaller cities like Calexico and Salinas in California all are currently working with the COPS Office to address issues ranging from use of force to racial profiling, training, accountability systems, and community engagement.  Agencies across the nation are using COPS Office reports as self-assessment tools.

Just as importantly, when communities like Baltimore and Ferguson have faced crises, the COPS Office has helped law enforcement agencies respond swiftly, drawing on a nationwide network of experts and successfully connecting them with the people responsible for coordinating the law enforcement response on the ground.  Within days of recent outbreaks of violence, for example, the COPS Office has assembled a group of experience police chiefs to provide advice on best practices for crowd control that respected First Amendment rights while also protecting officers.  The COPS Office also provided critical response resources to police departments in Detroit, San Diego, New Orleans, and numerous other cities and towns facing a variety of challenges.

The payoff from an investment in the COPS programs has been more effective policing and safer communities. As we continue an emerging national dialogue about improving police-community relationships, the remarkable expertise and resources that the COPS Office brings to the table – including its ability to serve as a liaison between community and law enforcement leaders – are more important than ever.  Eliminating such a resource would be disastrous.  I urge Congress to restore funding for the COPS programs.

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