Stimulus Prompts Debate Over Police Funds

 

State and local law enforcement officials are anxiously watching the congressional wrangling over President Obama's economic stimulus plan, hoping for an infusion of nearly $4 billion in federal funds even as critics say the money would be spent with little oversight and actually could hurt state and local budgets in the long term.

With both chambers of Congress debating what to include in Obama's stimulus package - with different allocations for state and local law enforcement in the competing House and Senate versions - police agencies nationwide are turning up the pressure in Washington, D.C.

Police chiefs, drug enforcement agents and other law enforcers, warning that crime spikes during recessions, say they will be forced to cut back on operations, lay off officers or, in some cases, close their doors unless the federal money reaches them soon.

Police advocacy groups favor the $3.95 billion in law enforcement funds included in the House-approved version of the stimulus plan, claiming it would create or save at least 27,300 criminal justice jobs - ranging from victims' advocates to public defenders and judges - and help quell any increase in crime associated with the recession.

The Senate on Feb. 10 approved its own version of the stimulus package, which would provide $3.5 billion for state and local law enforcement, with some of the funds distributed to programs not included in the House version.

But even as an influx of law enforcement funding is seen as long overdue by governors, state attorneys general, county officials and others who have been lobbying for the money for more than a year, others are mounting a campaign to get Congress not to allocate the funds.

Many fiscal conservatives question whether money for police will help stimulate the economy. Others fundamentally oppose federal funding for law enforcement - primarily a state and local responsibility - and say the money is difficult to track because it runs through federal, state and local hands.

"Without better monitoring of tax dollars, it's almost certain that much of the money is being wasted," said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union.

Some criminal justice reform groups, meanwhile, say the threat of increased crime is being overstated by police officials, noting that crime has trended downward in recent years.

More importantly, they say, Congress' spending plans focus too heavily on law enforcement and not enough on other programs that could improve public safety, such as education and employment assistance for ex-offenders. Critics say putting more police officers on the streets inevitably will result in more arrests - primarily, they say, of nonviolent drug offenders who will fill up already overcrowded jails and prisons, straining government budgets further.

"We urge the reallocation of this $4 billion to a broader, more comprehensive set of services and programs that not only will improve economies, but improve public safety and decrease spending on jails, prisons and law enforcement," several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote in a letter to Congress last month.

At the heart of the debate over the federal law enforcement money is a funding stream to state and local governments known as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program , which funds drug enforcement units, anti-gang efforts, after-school programs and a wide range of other initiatives. The program would receive $3 billion under the House version of the stimulus bill and $1.2 billion under the Senate version.

State officials consider the Byrne grants essential, and have waged a year-long lobbying effort to increase Byrne funding after Congress unexpectedly slashed the grants by 67 percent in December 2007 to an all-time low of $170 million.

In March 2008, 41 states participated in a sweep known as "Operation Byrne Blitz" - intended partly to showcase the reach and importance of the Byrne grants - that resulted in 4,220 drug-related arrests and the seizure of more than $13 million and tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs.

More recently, state and local criminal justice officials have hailed the Byrne grants as an effective way not only to promote public safety and crack down on offenders, but to quickly create jobs.

"At least in Arizona, 96 percent of this funds personnel," said Mary Marshall, public information officer for the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, which manages the grants and distributes them to local enforcement units. "I'd like to see anything else in (the stimulus package) where they can say that 96 percent can be used on personnel."

But the Byrne grants also have generated controversy, primarily because they are used to fund hundreds of so-called "multi-jurisdictional drug task forces" that operate across county lines (and sometimes state lines) to intercept drugs and arrest traffickers.

Critics say the task forces, because of their unique cross-jurisdictional structure, enjoy virtually unchecked law enforcement power that has been abused in the past and remain unaccountable for how they spend their money.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas in 2002 issued a report cataloguing 17 scandals involving Byrne-funded task forces in the state, including the imprisonment of more than three dozen African-Americans in Tulia, Texas, based on the uncorroborated testimony of a single, white undercover agent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2003 pardoned 35 of the defendants and authorities later shifted funding away from all Byrne-financed drug task forces in the state.

Now, as Congress reconciles the differences in the House and Senate versions of Obama's stimulus plan, critics of the Byrne grants say lawmakers should remember incidents like the one in Tulia, Texas, as they consider police funding.

"It's happening right now, today, in other states. There's not a doubt in my mind," said Scott Henson, the former ACLU of Texas official who authored the 2002 report and who favors eliminating the Byrne grant program. Byrne-funded drug task forces, Henson said, are "federally funded, state-managed and locally staffed - which means they're accountable to no one."

 
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