ANNAPOLIS – Its promise to put 100,000 cops on the street nationwide was somewhat misleading, its duration is limited and it has imposed unpublicized costs on local governments.
Still, many police departments in Maryland are pleased with the help are getting from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which gives them federal money to hire officers and buy equipment.
Officials claim the program, a highlight of the 1994 federal crime bill, has put more than 1,200 new cops on Maryland streets and authorized another 218 that have not been hired yet.
“We never would have been able to make the changes we’ve made without the COPS program,” said Hagerstown Police Chief Dale Jones, who has hired eight officers with COPS grants to target “disorder” crimes, like loitering, prostitution and open-air drug dealing.
Under the program, the federal government pays 75 percent of new officers’ salaries and benefits for three years — up to $75,000 for that period. Departments are then expected to keep the new officers on with local money after the grants expire.
Those matching costs and commitments dissuaded some agencies from taking the COPS money.
“It wasn’t the good deal that it appeared to be when it first came out,” said Irv Smith, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County sheriff. “Departments like ours that were strapped for money couldn’t do it.”
And not all COPS cops are actually new cops.
Some of the officers that the program claims to have put on the street were already on department payrolls, but were freed up from desk jobs through the purchase of high-tech equipment.
Of the 1,266 new officers the COPS program claims in Maryland, 532 are “virtual cops.” They represent the time saved by increased efficiency departments have achieved with equipment, such as laptop computers, purchased with COPS grants.
For instance, the COPS office says that Baltimore County has added 166 officers, but only 133 of those are actual new hires. The other 33 represent the approximate time the department has saved with new equipment purchased with $653,000 in COPS funding.
There is also no guarantee that local governments will hire all the officers that have been authorized.
Dorchester County has hired only one of the three officers authorized for its sheriff’s department because of concerns about ongoing costs after the grants expire, said County Commission President Jeff Powell.
But others are grateful for the help.
“The bottom line is that you know that in three years you have to pick up the tab for this guy. We got a three-year head start,” said Greenbelt Police Sgt. John Lann.
Greenbelt uses the lone officer it hired through the program for full-time bike patrol duties. One of the requirements of the program is that officers funded through COPS be dedicated to such to community-based policing efforts.
Of the 119 officers that Prince George’s County Police have devoted to community-based policing, 89 have been hired through the COPS program. Police credit community policing as a factor in the county’s 13 percent drop in crime overall since 1995.
“When an officer responds to a 911 call, he’s doing short- term problem solving,” said Lt. Scott Dunklee, who coordinates Prince George’s community-based policing. “There are unique opportunities for long-term problem solving (in community-based policing).”
Like Hagerstown, Baltimore County has used its 133 COPS to target specific problems.
The “Business Patrol Initiative,” for example, created nine long, thin community patrol beats in response to the fact that one-fifth of all robberies took place on seven business strips. Officers on those beats talk with business owners to devise ways to prevent crimes, said department spokesman Bill Toohey.
“They might say `Your loading dock is vulnerable’ or `Your windows have too many posters on them. Why don’t you take some down so we can see in?'” Toohey said.
Josh Yowell, loss prevention manager at the Catonsville Sports Authority, said he has noticed the difference.
“At least two or three times a week there’s an officer in here talking to us,” Yowell said. “I think that helps build a rapport with the officers.”
Though Baltimore County will eventually have to foot the bill for the new cops, Toohey predicts the program will pay for itself.
“We will have a strong tax base when we have safe, secure streets,” said Toohey. “We see this as generating tax revenues.”
In contrast to Baltimore County and its 133 COPS officers — only Baltimore City has more with 206 — the town of Crofton has hired only one COPS cop. But the extra officer allowed the town to upgrade to permanent round-the-clock coverage.
With the grant for that officer set to expire this June, the town board voted to increase its budget to fund the extra position.
“If the budget had not been approved for an increase we would have cut money out in some other area to keep that sixth officer,” said Barbara Swann, town manager of Crofton.