WASHINGTON – Maryland officials are decrying President Bush’s plan to sharply cut the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which has funded the addition of more than 2,600 officers in about 100 police agencies across the state.
Bush’s proposed fiscal 2003 budget would cut more than $500 million, about 45 percent, from the COPS program and would eliminate funding for new hires.
Police said the program has been “a blessing” that has been effective in preventing and reducing crime, and ensuring homeland security.
But administration officials said the Clinton-era initiative has already reached its goal.
“The goal was to hire 100,000 officers. Today there are 114,000 officers on the street,” said Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller. “It’s quite obvious that we have achieved our goal.”
Miller said COPS was supposed to end in 2001 anyway, but Bush kept it running in 2002. The president wants to do the same in 2003, he said, but redirect money from hiring to training and buying equipment.
But supporters say now is not the time to tinker with the program, which has helped police agencies ranging from Baltimore City to Garrett County to Pocomoke.
“I think that at a time when we are asking local law enforcement to play a major role in homeland security, it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to cut programs that make them stronger,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville.
He said the COPS program has “proven its worth time and time again.”
Maryland jurisdictions have received almost $162 million to hire, train and equip officers since the program began in 1994, according to the Justice Department’s COPS office. Morris Lewis of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association called the COPS program a “blessing.”
Although they were initially hired with the help of federal funds, the officers’ salaries were gradually shifted to local governments. As a result, none are expected to lose their jobs as a result of the proposed federal cuts.
The Baltimore Police Department has been the biggest beneficiary in Maryland, with almost $60 million in grants overall. That money allowed it to hire or redeploy officers, putting the equivalent of 715.3 full-time cops on the street during that time, according to the COPS Office.
The officers and the technology provided by COPS helped “tremendously” in the days after Sept. 11, said Kristen Mahoney, director of grants and government relations for Baltimore police. The department used grant money to hire and train new officers, put computers into patrol cars, and purchase mapping technology.
Mahoney said COPS officers contributed to the tremendous drop in the violent crime rate of recent years. Having extra officers let the department deploy special teams into high-crime areas, she said
Mahoney said the department had not planned to seek COPS money to hire more officers in the near future, but that it would like the option.
Prince George’s County has received more than $20 million and the equivalent of 543.8 officers, which has particularly benefited the COPS in schools program.
Prince George’s County Council member M.H. “Jim” Estepp said he cannot understand why the president cannot find room in the federal budget to fund COPS when his priority is public safety.
“The last thing we want to do is make cuts in programs that are proven effective,” he said.
Estepp said community policing is an integral part of homeland defense, because it “provides a set of eyes and ears to law enforcement, because it’s tied to the community.”
Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the grants program has been “tremendously successful.” He doubted that the $3.5 billion Bush has proposed for “first responder” programs under the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be able to do the job.
“Our concern here is that the FEMA program, we don’t want it just to be a response program,” Voegtlin said. “Law enforcement’s role is not to respond, it’s to prevent crime.”
Hoyer’s staff said some FEMA money might still trickle down to community- policing efforts. Congress resisted Bush’s attempt to cut COPS funding last year, when the president proposed cutting the program by $182 million, or 17 percent.
“I’m not certain this is a done issue,” Voegtlin said.