The pros and cons of the Invest to Protect Act
If signed into law, it would provide $60 million in grants each year to “smaller” law enforcement agencies, from 2023 to 2027
Another legislative session, another bill addressing police funding: this time, the twist directs funding to help departments besides the urban giants, and the nifty title is the Invest to Protect Act (HR 6448).
It passed in the House with a large and reasonably bipartisan majority, and action in the Senate is expected during December’s lame-duck period. If signed into law, it would provide $60 million in grants each year to “smaller” law enforcement agencies, from 2023 to 2027. Let’s take a look at the bill and its (realistic) potential to make a difference in small-town policing.
What’s to like about HR 6448?
There could be a lot to like about the bill. Rather than copy/pasting the same territory as the older and better-known COPS grant program, the Invest to Protect act is intended to be scaled down, more accessible and more available. Small police agencies have had difficulty navigating the nitpicky and time-consuming application process for federal grants, and they compete poorly for funding that leverages economies of scale to prove good stewardship to the public. The text of HR 6448 specifically calls for a streamlined application process that should take no longer than two hours to complete.
The grant funds could provide for stuff that’s been sorely lacking for small departments, some of which should be popular among line officers as well as department heads. Acceptable uses for the grants include “evidence-based best practices and training on the use of lethal and nonlethal force” and funding overtime to backfill positions during training.
Other uses could pay for treatment for officers diagnosed with post-traumatic or acute stress disorders, including peer support, counseling and family support. It could also fund improvements to telehealth services for officers accessing mental health treatment.
The bill targets lagging hiring by providing funds for recruitment and retention bonuses, carefully spelling out the terms, amounts and longevity required for each category. These kinds of bonuses are rare in small departments. Chief James Small of Palmyra, Wisconsin (while somewhat skeptical of the impact of the rest of the bill) said that he does have an officer approaching retirement who agrees that (perhaps) a suitable bonus could persuade her to remain longer. It’s worth a second look.
One unusual feature of the bill would fund stipends for officers studying mental health, public health, or social work at the graduate level. I have to question the practicality of that one since it could help only officers in small departments who already have bachelor’s degrees and only those who have degrees with the prerequisites needed for those three specific fields. The internet makes education more accessible than it used to be for students outside urban areas, but I don’t think much of these grants will be spent this way. The pool of compliant applicants is just too narrow.
What’s not to like about HR 6448?
One obstacle is simply understanding the criteria. While the bill goes on for 14 pages and defines the terms "de-escalation," "director," "eligible local government," "law enforcement officer" and "office," the term "evidence-based" is used at least four times without defining it at all. What evidence? Published by whom, and to what standard?
What happens if the applicant department chooses training, uses the funds granted and then auditors disqualify the evidence behind the training? Will the grant terms specify which training sources are acceptable? Will those sources be available to all the applicants? Training is already hard to access for many smaller departments. Why make it harder while trying to make it easier?
Another obstacle, harder to define, will be the attractiveness of the sorts of acceptable training. As I noted above, police graduate students in mental health and social work are likely to be thin on the ground. Budget constraints compel many law enforcement students to be very practical about choosing fields that will further their careers (say, Administration of Justice) or help them with a second career after retirement (maybe business or even law school). Policing isn’t the kind of career most people can perform into old age. If the intent of the grant terms is to narrow the number of applicants who can use it, then they succeed here.
The text is also packed with fashionable reform buzz words: “de-escalation training” and “victim-centered training for law enforcement officers in handling domestic violence,” and “evidence-based law enforcement safety training for response to calls for service involving persons with substance use disorders; persons with mental health needs; veterans; persons with disabilities; vulnerable youth; persons who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or trafficking; and persons experiencing homelessness or living in poverty." Good grief. That’s long.
Do the applicants choose from among those topics or do the acceptable trainings need to cover all those bases? How is officer safety different when dealing with a poor person as opposed to a rich one? What does vulnerable youth mean, as long as we’re defining things, and why are they a safety issue? Or do they mean safety for the subject of the call, rather than the officer? Who decides?
Can we ask the writers to make the text more practical and less squishy? It’s probably too late for that, but maybe next time around. Fashion may drive legislative sponsors, but it’s not very helpful for the people who have to write the grants. It’s hard enough that the bill text goes on for pages describing compliance requirements, data collection requirements, audits and penalties for failure to comply with grant terms, along with potential clawbacks of (presumably already spent) funds. They make a stab at understanding, though, in directing auditors to consider a department’s ability to comply with reporting and collection. That’s a start.
Now for the real obstacle: the bill’s definition of “smaller” as being a department with fewer than 125 officers. If the comparison is to New York Police Department (about 36,000 officers) or Los Angeles Police Department (about 9,000 officers), then sure, 125 is small.
But let’s have some perspective: according to SRLEEA (Small and Rural Law Enforcement Executive) website, 90% of law enforcement agencies in the US have 50 officers or fewer and 75% have only 25 officers or even fewer. SRLEEA takes its numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics census, and when we look there, the obstacle becomes even more pronounced: 40% of state and local law enforcement agencies employ only nine officers (or even fewer, again).
If there are roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, that means that more than 17,000 of them are less than half the size that HR 6448 defines as small.
What are the odds of those really little departments getting a piece of that grant pie? In a department of 10 to 25 officers, the grant writer is likely to be the chief or sheriff, or maybe a sergeant banging away on a keyboard between calls, not a specialist. How likely are they to compete with a department of 80 officers, in a town of 60,000? How likely is it that the smaller department needs the training, or counseling, or retention bonus more, and can afford it less? How much help is it to offer funding for overtime to backfill the schedule for training if there’s literally no one left over to work that extra shift?
I give the sponsors of this bill credit for trying. Usually, when people have unrealistic expectations, it’s ignorance to blame, not spite. Ignorance can be fixed. But now that they know why HR 6448 is likely to cut out the very officers who need the most help, the question becomes: what are you going to do about it?
Either all officers need and deserve training, mental health support and hiring incentives, or none of them do. If they all do, be intentional about including the smallest and poorest. Pass this bill, regroup and try again.