COPS stimulus going to one in seven agencies
By MaryClaire Dale and Devlin Barrett
PHILADEPHIA — The Obama administration on Tuesday announced $1 billion in grants to help keep police officers on the beat during the economic downturn - and tried to assure cities not getting aid that they won't be stiffed.
The aid announced by Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder is just a fraction of what police departments across the country had hoped to get. For every $1 to be delivered, another $7 in requests will go unanswered under the grant program, Community Oriented Policing Services, commonly called COPS.
Four major U.S. cities are finding this out the hard way: New York, Houston, Seattle and Pittsburgh are among those that will not get money because the Justice Department decided other parts of the country simply needed it more, officials said.
"These officers will go to where they are needed most," Holder said, adding that the decision about who gets money was made "based on crime rates, financial need and community policing activities."
The demand - from more than 7,000 agencies - is indicative of the tough times they are facing, he said.
The money will not only keep 4,700 men and women officers on the street, but will enable them to make house and car payments, make ends meet, and save for their children's future, he said.
Biden called paying cops' salaries "a moral obligation."
Governors and mayors who are getting the help were grateful.
"Thank goodness, thank goodness, that we are doing something not only to save jobs but to protect communities across America," Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey said at the announcement in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia's mayor, Michael Nutter, called the $10.9 million his city will get "an incredible opportunity and a full demonstration that the federal government has a role to play, can do something to make our cities safe and enjoyable for all of us."
About 7,000 state and local agencies applied for aid under the COPS program that is part of the $787 billion stimulus package passed earlier this year. Of those, only about 1,000 were approved. Each state is entitled to at least $5 million in COPS money.
Other big winners in the COPS grant program are:
-The police department in Rochester, N.Y., which will get money to create or save about 30 law enforcement jobs.
-Kalamazoo, Mich., which will get nearly $2 million for 10 officer positions.
The roughly 1,000 places getting COPS aid also include: Mobile, Ala., Mesa, Ariz., Tulare County, Calif., Monroe County, Fla., the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Baltimore, Providence, R.I., Salt Lake City, Utah, and Huntington, W.Va.
As local governments bleed red ink and officials look to plug budget gaps, they have swamped the government with a record number of requests for aid under the program. There is only $1 available in grant money for every $8 sought.
As a result, the Justice Department decided the most worthy cities were those that faced serious budgetary problems and those that have relatively high crime rates.
New York is less needy by both measures, officials said, because of its low crime rate and stable city budget. New York also has the largest single police force in the country, and received some money from a different stimulus program earlier this year, about $29 million.
Seeking to quiet the chorus of complaints even before the announcement was official, the Justice Department said Tuesday that New York City will get $7 million from another grant program. New York was almost certain to get those funds anyway, since that program delivers money based mostly on a pre-set population-based formula.
The Big Apple also has a touchy history with Washington when it comes to federal aid for police costs. In 2006, the Bush administration sparked an uproar when it slashed homeland security money for New York.
Rep. Peter King of New York, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, criticized the COPS decision.
"It is disgraceful for New York City to be shut out just because the NYPD is doing such a great job under trying circumstances and Mayor (Mike) Bloomberg is doing such a wonderful job of managing the city's finances," said King, adding that the city "is the No. 1 terrorist target and should not be penalized for its success."
Bloomberg, in a statement, called the decision "disappointing, to put it mildly. To punish our police department because they have driven down crime with fewer resources shows the backwards incentive system that is sometimes at work in Washington." He said the 9/11 attacks "were attacks on the nation and we should be receiving strong federal support for the NYPD to fight terrorism in the nation's largest city."
Officials familiar with Tuesday's announcement said the Justice Department estimates the grant awards will help hire 3,818 new officers, and retain 881 positions that would otherwise be lost to budgetary belt-tightening.
That makes a total of 4,699 officers - still short of the program's announced goal of hiring 5,000 officers.
Under the COPS program, the federal government pays the officers' salary and benefits for three years, after which the local government is responsible for the costs.
Local police chiefs have been waiting anxiously for months to learn what they will receive, and understood even before the decisions were announced that many of them would be disappointed.