WASHINGTON — Legislation that the House of Representatives passed overwhelmingly Thursday would send billions of dollars to thousands of communities to help them hire and retain 50,000 police officers.
The 342-78 vote was the latest step in reviving a Clinton-era "cops on the streets" program that provided $6.9 billion to help hire nearly 117,000 police officers starting in 1994. The Community Oriented Policing Services program then withered under the Bush administration.
The first move to revive it came earlier this year, when the economic stimulus bill provided $1 billion for the program. The Justice Department was swamped with 7,200 requests totaling $8.3 billion and expects to begin making spending decisions soon. The department hopes to fund about 5,500 positions
Grants will be awarded competitively, meaning that no state or locality is guaranteed money. During the 1990s, about half the community policing money went to jurisdictions that had fewer than 150,000 people.
The House bill would provide another $1.8 billion a year for five years, including $1.25 billion for hiring and the rest for prosecutors, technology and help for high-crime communities. These grants, too, would be awarded competitively.
The 2009 spending surge is a sharp reversal from the past eight years, when such funding all but evaporated. At its peak, the program spent $1 billion per year in fiscal 1997 and 1998.
The Justice Department estimates that funding dropped to $5 million by fiscal 2005, as the Bush White House and conservatives argued that there was no link between the federally funded hiring of more local police officers and the drop in the crime during the '90s.
They also objected to saddling local governments with the cost of the personnel once the federal dollars ran out. Grants varied, but often they lasted only three years.
This year, several forces are converging to fuel the program's comeback: The recession is leaving local governments strapped for money, the program remains overwhelmingly popular with state and local officials, and Democrats are back in power in Washington.
There are still potential hurdles. While the measure has strong Senate support, Congress and the president must approve specific spending again each year, and conservatives continue to express objections.
David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, has argued for years that there's no connection between the hiring and crime reduction.
"It's basically a program that provides money to police departments to do what they normally would do on their own," he said.
When he was asked whether that's harder during the recession, Muhlhausen said no.
"The number one priority should be public safety," he said. "If they are claiming to not have enough money for that purpose, it tells me they have officers and programs they don't need, or their priorities are mistaken."
A 2007 study by The Brookings Institution, a center-left research center, reached opposite conclusions.
The program "has been effective in putting more police officers on the street. The best available evidence suggests that more police lead to less crime," it says. "Thus, COPS appears to have contributed to the drop in crime observed in the 1990s."
In a 2005 study, the Government Accountability Office found "studies of the impact of the grants on crime have been inconclusive."
It disputed Democrats' claim that at least 100,000 officers had been funded, saying that the number at the time was closer to 88,000, and noted that "factors other than COPS funds accounted for the majority of the decline in crime during this period."
House debate Wednesday and Thursday was sharp and reminiscent of the '90s-era partisan clashes over the program.
The old Clinton COPS program was, said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., an architect of the new effort, "a classically democratic — with a small D — success."
Republicans countered that it was largely a Democratic Party public-relations success that had little do with falling crime rates in the '90s. All 78 "no" votes Thursday came from the Republican Party.
"This is a not a good return on investment," argued Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
Democrats charged that the Republican Party hated the idea of backing a program not only that former President Bill Clinton had championed but that also had proved popular, and had helped remove the Democrats' image as too soft on crime.
Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, a former state judge there, blasted what he called Washington's "atmosphere of arrogance" by thinking that federal policies reduced crime. It was local efforts, Gohmert said, "the hardworking law enforcement officers and court officials back in the states and local governments."
Weiner was unimpressed.
"I hope the gentleman did not dislocate his arm patting himself on the back for bringing down crime," he said.
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