- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Inaccuracies in a math formula used to rank grant applicants led to more than $14 million in federal stimulus funds being given this year to 45 police agencies that should not have received them, while 34 departments that qualified for the funds were deprived, a review by the Justice Department’s office of inspector general has concluded.

The grant money was awarded in July as part of $1 billion provided to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) for the COPS Hiring Recovery Program (CHRP) meant to hire, rehire or retain 4,699 officers nationwide.

A report by the Justice Department’s office of inspector general released this week said the money was mistakenly distributed because of “inaccuracies in some of the formulas that COPS used to score and rank grant applicants.”

The money that should not have been distributed ranged from a $108,000 grant to the city of Hyden, Ky., to a $1.5 million award to the Clovis Police Department in central California.

Janet Stoll-Lee, a Clovis police spokeswoman, said officials have not received any indication that the money would be withdrawn. She said budget constraints have cut the number of officers from 116 in 2008 to 91 last year, so the money is being put to good use.

“We were extremely grateful to receive the money to fund five officers, all of whom have been hired,” she said.

The inspector general’s report, which complimented COPS Office officials on the timeliness and transparency of the grant awards, recommended - and COPS officials agreed - that agencies that did not receive the funding this year will be given the full funding next year.

Most of the agencies that were supposed to receive the funds but did not were based in areas with small populations. The biggest award was to Georgia’s Athens-Clarke County Police Department, which lost out on nearly $1.5 million that was supposed to fund 11 of its 231 officers. The 19-officer police department in Fruitland, Md., did not get about $200,000 supposed to fund one officer position.

Mark Stephenson, criminal administrator for the Fruitland department, said officials received a letter from the federal government explaining the mistake.

“For us, of course, it’s extremely important,” he said. “We’re always trying to make sure we’ve got another person we can put on the street.”

The inspector general’s report also said six police agencies received more officer positions than they should have, and six grantees received fewer officer positions than they deserved.

COPS Office Director Bernard K. Melekian said in a written response to the audit that demand and the deadline pressure contributed to the mistakes, but he defended the program.

“The extremely high demand for funding, the development of our new online application system, and the dramatically compressed timeline to award COPS Hiring Recovery Program grants presented challenges not previously experienced with past COPS hiring programs,” he said. “Yet, the COPS office was able to evaluate, score and award $1 billion in Recovery Act funds in just over five months.”

The program awarded stimulus funds to 1,046 police departments out of 7,272 that applied. The money is intended to cover the salaries of officers for three years. Then the agency must pay the salaries for at least one year. The departments were ranked on a scale in which “fiscal health” of the locality accounted for half, while the other half took into effect a combination of reported crime information and planned community policing activities.

No agency received funding for more than 50 officers, and no department could receive funding for more than 5 percent of its sworn strength.

The inspector general’s report found two inaccuracies in the formula that calculated changes in the fiscal conditions of localities applying for the funds and ranked the localities against one another. The inspector general said the inaccuracies, which Mr. Melekian described as “minor” in his response, resulted in changes to the scores of 7,201 of the 7,203 departments rescored.

In addition to the inaccuracies with the scoring of applicants, the inspector general’s report also found shortcomings in the procedures that COPS used to verify whether applicants had overstated crime statistics.

“Rather than using crime rates to identify potentially overstated crime data, COPS only used the actual number of crimes,” the report said. “Because COPS did not identify and verify applications that possibly overstated statistics, we believe it is likely there were agencies that received CHRP awards based on inflated statistics, over other agencies that were denied funding.”

President Obama has sought to reinvigorate the COPS program, which began under President Clinton and is credited by some as playing a significant role in the dramatic decreases in crime during the 1990s.

Critics of the program have said it is more pork than policy, and the Bush administration cut the program extensively.

• Matthew Cella can be reached at mcella@washingtontimes.com.

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