How a Biden-Backed Community Policing Bill Wound Up Militarizing Cops

Even before 9/11, police departments were using federal funds to buy SWAT gear

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When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, crime in America was climbing. The concept of community policing was growing increasingly popular. Ideally, with community policing, rather than taking a “call-and-response” approach to policing — which focuses on aspects of policing like improving response times to 911 calls — cops walk regular beats. They go to community meetings. They know the names of the principals of the schools in their district, and they know and consult with community and neighborhood leaders. It’s a more proactive form of policing, but one that stresses making cops a part of the places they work.

In 1994 Clinton started a new grant program under the Justice Department called Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. For its inaugural year, Clinton and leaders in Congress (most notably Sen. Joe Biden) funded it with $148.4 million. The next year funding jumped to $1.42 billion, and it stayed in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion through 1999. COPS grants were mostly intended to go to police departments to hire new police officers, ostensibly for the purpose of implementing more community-oriented policing strategies.

The problem was that there was no universal definition of community policing. Most law enforcement officials and academics agree that community policing is a more proactive approach to policing than call-and-response, but within that general agreement is a huge range of approaches. Street sweeps, occupation-like control of neighborhoods, SWAT raids, and aggressive anti-gang policies are also proactive. These police activities are aggressive, often violent, and usually a net loss for civil liberties, but they are proactive.

When Clinton, Biden, and other politicians touted the COPS program, they did so with language that evoked the Peace Corps approach (though both Clinton and Biden also supported policies that promoted militarization). Although Clinton described the goal of COPS as “build[ing] bonds of understanding and trust between police and citizens,” it wasn’t clear if he or any other politician really believed this. The majority of the funding in COPS grants was given simply to hire more police officers. The program said little about how those officers should be used, or what sort of attitude they should bring to the job.

As the COPS program threw billions at police departments under the pretense of hiring whistling, baton-twirling Officer Friendlies to walk neighborhood beats, many police agencies were actually using the money to militarize.

Moreover, while Congress regularly makes federal funding contingent on states passing a particular law or policy—think speed limits or drunk driving laws tied to federal highway funding—it’s much more difficult to dictate how a police department puts a big federal grant to work in day-to-day operations. And so as the COPS program threw billions at police departments under the pretense of hiring whistling, baton-twirling Officer Friendlies to walk neighborhood beats, rescue kittens, and maybe guest-umpire the occasional Little League game, many police agencies were actually using the money to militarize.

One of the first to notice what was going on was Portland journalist Paul Richmond. “The unfortunate truth about community policing as it is currently being implemented is that it is anything but community based,” Richmond wrote in a 1997 article for the alternative newspaper PDXS. Instead, he wrote, in Portland the grants had resulted in “increased militarization of the police force.” Richmond also found in Portland that, ironically (or perhaps not), a federal program touted as a way to encourage local police to get more involved with local communities was actually federalizing local law enforcement. At the same time Clinton was pushing COPS, the administration and Democrats in Congress were pushing policies like “troops to cops” bills, management training programs for police agencies based on federal models of policing, and a bill that would allow local police departments to fund community policing programs with asset forfeiture money obtained through the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program — the program that allows local police departments to ignore state forfeiture laws by teaming up with the federal government. Another bill would have established a 2,500-person “Federal Rapid Deployment Force” — essentially a small standing army — that states and cities could call upon to swoop in for special crime- and drug-fighting missions. The same bill would also have directed yet more funding to create joint federal-state-local anti-drug task forces.

Richmond found that while the overall cops-to-citizens ratio fell in the early 1990s, in Portland, between 1989 and 1994, the number of officers in the city’s tactical operations department jumped from two to 56. The two officers in charge of the city’s tactical teams had formerly been in charge of the city’s Department of Community Policing. Richmond also obtained a copy of the city’s “Community Policing Strategic Plan,” passed by the city council in 1994. Among the plan’s objectives was to increase the police department’s involvement with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the Oregon National Guard. It included implementing at a local level Clinton’s “one strike and you’re out” plan for drug use in public housing, which allowed for raids on public housing tenants, followed by their possible eviction, based on no more than an anonymous tip. Richmond was alarmed that so many progressives in the city were embracing the community policing plan based on little more than its pleasant-sounding name and that it was coming from a Democratic administration in Washington and administered by a progressive city government. The devil was in the details, and no one had bothered to look at the details.

Little of this would have surprised criminal justice scholar Peter Kraska. All of the police departments he surveyed that had a SWAT team “also claimed to place high emphasis on the democratic approach to community policing.” Kraska found that when most law enforcement officials heard “community policing,” they thought of the militarized zero-tolerance model. To them, the idea of a police agency simultaneously militarizing and implementing community policing policies was perfectly reasonable.

In fact, two out of three departments Kraska surveyed said their SWAT team was actually part of their community policing strategy. Surprising as that may seem at first glance, it went hand in hand with the increasing use of these tactical teams for routine patrols.

In 2001 a Madison Capital Times investigation found that 65 of Wisconsin’s 83 local SWAT teams had come into being since 1980—28 of them since 1996, and 16 in just the previous year. In other words, more than half of the state’s SWAT teams had popped up since the inaugural year of the COPS program. The newer tactical units had sprung up in absurdly small jurisdictions like Forest County (population 9,950), Mukwonago (7,519), and Rice Lake (8,320). Many of the agents who populated these new SWAT teams, the paper found, had been hired with COPS grants. A local criminologist was incredulous: “Community policing initiatives and stockpiling weapons and grenade launchers are totally incompatible.” Perhaps that was true in theory, but not in how community policing was being practiced.

Of course, Byrne grants and the 1033 program had also contributed to the SWAT-ification of the Dairy State. The paper found that in the 1990s, Wisconsin police departments hauled in over 100,000 pieces of military equipment valued at more than $18 million. Columbia County alone — home to all of 52,000 people — made out with 5,000 military items valued at $1.75 million. Some of the bounty was benign, items like computers and office equipment, but it also included “11 M-16s, 21 bayonets, four boats, a periscope, and 41 vehicles, one of which was converted into a mobile command center for the SWAT team.” Columbia County also received “surveillance equipment, cold weather gear, tools, battle dress uniforms, flak jackets, [and] chemical suits.” The county put its tactical team to use by sending it to “Weedstock” in nearby Sauk County, an event where cops in full SWAT attire intimidatingly stood guard while “hundreds of young people gather[ed] peacefully to smoke marijuana and listen to music.”

Moreover, the Capital Times found that the state distributed the Byrne grants, COPS grants, and block law enforcement grants it received from Washington to local police agencies based solely on their drug policing statistics. The size of the disbursements was directly tied to the number of city or county drug arrests. Each drug-related arrest, the paper found, brought in $153 to each local police department. Jackson County quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000. Correspondingly, the county’s state-distributed federal law enforcement subsidies quadrupled too. Several jurisdictions brought in enough in grants alone to more than cover the cost of starting a SWAT team.

This is how the game is played. Drug arrests brought in federal money. Federal money and 1033 let police departments buy cool battle garb to start a SWAT team, which they justify to local residents by playing to fears of terrorism, school shootings, and hostage-takings. But those sorts of events are not only rare, they don’t bring in any additional money. Drug raids bring in more federal funding, plus the possibility of asset forfeiture. All in the name of community policing.

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama and Joe Biden — but especially Biden — credited the COPS program as the reason behind America’s historic crime drop that began in 1994. Biden’s campaign website during the 2008 primaries exclaimed, “In the 1990s, the Biden Crime Bill [an incarnation of the final bill establishing COPS] added 100,000 cops to America’s streets. As a result, murder and violent crime rates went down eight years in a row.” The Justice Department’s inspector general put the number of new cops closer to 60,000, and a Heritage Foundation analysis found that, accounting for attrition, the total number of cops on the streets increased between 6,000 and 40,000. More to the point, there’s little evidence that the crime drop was a result of the program. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office found that while the violent crime rate dropped 32% between 1993 and 2000, at most, the COPS program accounted for 2.5% of that decrease, and at a cost of $8 billion. A 2007 analysis in the peer-reviewed academic journal Criminology concluded that “COPS spending had little to no effect on crime.”

In 2007 I was asked to speak about police militarization at a “crime summit” hosted by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime. During a question-and-answer session, someone asked about community policing and the possibility of restoring full funding to the COPS grants. (The Bush administration had phased the program out.) Everyone seemed to be in favor of the “Peace Corps” model of community policing, and they also seemed to believe that this was what the COPS grants were funding. Pointing to the Madison Capital Times investigation and Kraska’s research, I explained that these idealized visions of community policing didn’t appear to have much to do with how the grants were actually being used. Representative Scott stopped me.

“Are you telling me that our community policing grants are being used to start and fund… SWAT teams?”

I responded that, yes, that was what Kraska and the Madison paper had found.

Scott replied, with a bit of whimsy, “Well, that’s not really what we intended.”

The room had a good chuckle. The next year the Democrats increased funding to the COPS program by $40 million. The following year, with Obama in the White House, the program’s budget increased 250%, to $1.55 billion.

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Written by

Investigative journalist and reporter at the Washington Post. Author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

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