- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

President Obama has used the Ferguson and NYPD controversies to campaign for increased community policing tactics. But on his watch, federal funding for such initiatives has plummeted and money has been mishandled or diverted to such things as drones that have done little to further the cause, a Washington Times review of federal documents shows.

The declining reach of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program is laid bare by the results of its 2014 efforts: it managed to spend only $124 million to fund 944 community policing officers inside 215 departments, according to the department’s final statistics.

The agency’s goal was to have nearly 10 times the impact: 8,069 officers with more than $1.8 billion, according to the department’s own fact sheet. But since the 2011 budget crisis, the White House and congressional leaders have been unable to agree on the arc of the program, leaving it woefully underfunded when compared to its hey-day under former President Bill Clinton when as much as $1 billion annually was allocated to the effort.

Even when the Justice Department has managed to distribute funds, it has come under criticism for missing its mark.

Internal probes by the department’s inspector general have chronicled how Justice officials deprived Memphis, Tennessee, police of needed community policing funds and allowed COPS money to buy seven drones for local police that were deemed of little value to community policing efforts.

An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the auditing arm of Congress, also found that Justice had narrowed COPS funding so much that half the money was spent in only six states. Furthermore, federal officials couldn’t document in the majority of the cases how COPS funds specifically improved community funding.

“Less than 20 percent of the applications funded in 2010, 2011, and 2012 contained evidence showing how additional officers would be deployed in community policing,” the GAO reported last year.

The internal performance metrics contrast sharply with Mr. Obama’ strong advocacy — in the shadows of the Ferguson and New York protests — for more community policing and better relations between officers and minority neighborhoods.

“The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color,” the president said during a news conference in late November after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in Ferguson for fatally shooting an unarmed black suspect who charged at him and beat the officer. “Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. And this is tragic, because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates.”

The president has since instructed the Justice Department to step up it efforts to aid police departments to, in his own words, “build better relations between communities and law enforcement make sure their ranks are representative of the communities they serve (and) train officials so that law enforcement conducts itself in a way that is fair to everybody.”

The president’s recent rhetoric, however, fails to recognize his own administration’s faulty record so far or its inability to address congressional concerns about the stewardship of the COPS program, according to the Republican who will become a key Senate gatekeeper on law enforcement matters next year.

“The amount of waste and abuse in federal grant programs is well documented, especially at the Justice Department. It appears the COPS program could use a good dose of accountability from both the department and the individual grantees who are trusted with taxpayer dollars,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican, who takes over in January as the chairman of the influential Senate Judiciary Committee.

Justice Department officials said Tuesday they were unable to comment on the COPS program because key program officials were on holiday break. But in its own statements, the department has both expressed frustration at getting more funds from Congress for COPS and acknowledged more work needs to be done to improve the program.

Last month, for instance, the department issued new guidelines to police departments seeking funding, saying it wanted to address issues that have surfaced in recent audits and investigations.

“The purpose of the (guidelines) is to broaden understanding of compliance requirements in an effort to proactively promote grantee awareness for potential noncompliance and to make grantees more successful in properly implementing their COPS Office grant program,” the department explained.

Since COPS began in 1994 under Mr. Clinton, it has awarded about $14 billion in federal grants to various law enforcement agencies to advance community policing. The program averaged near $1 billion a year in support during the Clinton and early years of George W. Bush’s presidency.

But the Bush administration began cutting funding, and that trend has continued under Mr. Obama with the exception of 2009 when the president’s stimulus money created a temporary, fresh surge in hiring monies for police.

The overwhelming majority of COPS money is allocated for hiring officers that will specifically engage in community policing. From 2008-2012, a reported 68 percent of the $2.5 billion funneled into COPS program went toward hiring officers “for deployment in community policing.”

But the 2013 GAO found a few states disproportionately benefitted from the funds, with “48 percent of the funding was awarded to grantees in six states — California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas.”

Ironically, neither Missouri or New York made the top six list.

Part of the reason for the apparent uneven distribution is that federal law requires that 50 percent of grant funding go to jurisdictions with populations over 150,000, reducing the number of communities eligible to compete for big money.

In some cases, officials have also attributed the disparity to “fiscal health” considerations in that “certain states have been disproportionately affected by fiscal distress,” the GAO noted.

Those department paying their officers higher salaries also received more federal funding, with some large discrepancies detected by the GAO.

“In fiscal year 2011, a grantee in California received a CHP award equivalent to its entry-level officer salary and benefits level of $150,753 per officer. In the same fiscal year, a grantee in Connecticut received a CHP award—also based on its entry-level officer salary and benefits—of $64,459 per officer per year,” the report noted.

COPS officials attributed the differences to geographical wage differences and the availability of state law enforcement funds.

Other geographical conflicts have arisen forcing funds to be effectively siphoned from one jurisdiction to another.

In 2009 an estimated $2.2 million in federal police funds were mistakenly redirected to Dekalb County, Georgia. A Justice Department inspector general report found that the funds were redirected as a result of Dekalb County inflating inaccurate crime statistics.

As a result, Memphis was only able to hire 37 of the 50 police officers it needed to effectively patrol its jurisdiction.

“The Memphis economy has been particularly hard hit in recent years, and losing out on this funding likely forced the redirection of resources away from other important priorities in an already strained budget,” Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat, lamented on his official congressional Web site, urging Justice to make Memphis police whole on their grant money.

To date, the money has not been redistributed. Even so, geographical distribution issues are only the tip of the iceberg.

Vague terms in the grant application process that has enabled departments to reassign ‘community policing’ responsibilities to officers who were not hired within the program.

A small footnote in the report indicates that after police departments hire entry-level officers with COPS funds, they can “redeploy a commensurate number of experienced locally funded officers to community policing to satisfy the requirements of the grant.”

The suggested effect of this ‘redeployment’ option is that officers hired to engage in community policing are not the actual officers that do so making it potentially easier for departments to creatively redistribute the federally funded monies.

Beyond manpower, concerns have also been raised about COPS funding going for such expenditures as unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones.

An inspector general report in September 2013 found that between 2004 and 2013 the department spent approximately $3.7 million on drones. Of that money, $1.2 million came from COPS and the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), starting under Mr. Bush and continuing under Mr. Obama.

To date, the use of the drones for has not proved effective in achieving federal goals, the inspector general concluded.

In Alabama, Gadsden police spent $150,000 on drone-related costs, but lost contact with its drone causing it to crash into a tree in 2009.

Police in Little Rock, Arkansas, spent $84,000 to purchase a drone in 2008, but had not still used the device as of 2013. In 2007, both police in Miami-Dade, Florida, and San Mateo, California, each received a $150,000 grant to purchase a drone. But Miami-Dade has still not used its drone, and San Mateo’s grant was rescinded after they declined to purchase one, the Instector General reported.

The report also indicated a more serious risk.

“It is also possible that the uncoordinated use of local UAS could interfere with federal surveillance,” the Inspector General warned.

“We found no evidence that OJP or COPS coordinated with or notified DOJ law enforcement components (FBI, DEA, USMS, and ATF) about UAS awards, either before or after the awards were made,” the report said.

• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro can be reached at jshapiro@washingtontimes.com.

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