Interim Report on the Effects of COPS Funds on the Decline in Crime during the 1990s

GAO-05-699R: Published: Jun 3, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 7, 2005.

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Laurie E. Ekstrand
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The enactment of the Public Safety Partnership and Community Policing Act of 1994, Title 1 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA), authorized appropriations of $8.8 billion to advance the practice of community policing as an effective strategy in communities' efforts to improve public safety. It had as a goal adding 100,000 new police officers nationwide. The Attorney General created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to administer community policing grants. VCCLEA was enacted shortly after a period of increasing violent crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. In December 1993, the Department of Justice (DOJ) began making community policing grants to state and local law enforcement agencies. By 2001, COPS grants totaling $7.3 billion in obligations had been made to state and local law enforcement agencies, and these agencies had expended about $5 billion of these obligated amounts. The COPS grant expenditures amounted to about 1 percent of total local law enforcement expenditures from 1994 through 2001. During the time that agencies were spending COPS funds, violent crimes declined. One recent study of the effects of COPS grants on crime concluded that the COPS grants contributed to reductions in crime in the 1990s. However, we previously reviewed the study and reported that its methodological limitations were such that the study's results should be viewed as inconclusive. Moreover, neither the study we reviewed nor a second study of the effects of COPS grant funds on crime analyzed specific ways by which COPS funds could affect crime. In response to the inconclusive results of the study we reviewed, Congress asked us to undertake our own independent evaluation of the impact of COPS grants on the decline in crime that occurred during the 1990s. This report provides results to date from our evaluation regarding three interrelated questions about the extent to which, if any, that COPS grants affected the decline in crime in the 1990s: (1) How were the COPS grant funds distributed among local law enforcement agencies, and to what extent did the distribution of funds correspond to the distribution of total crime and violent crime? (2) Were COPS grants associated with changes in policing practices such as proactive problem identification and intervention, collaboration between police and their communities, and a focus on specific places with high concentrations of crime? (3) Did COPS grant funds lead to increases in the number of sworn police officers, and if so, what was the impact of these COPS-funded officers on the decline in crime during the 1990s? Our final report on our evaluation--due for release in fall 2005--will assess additional aspects of these research objectives, such as other distributional issues related to the flow of funds, officers, and crime; cost-effectiveness issues; and the relationship between policing practices and crime.

Of the $6.01 billion in total COPS grant funds obligated to agencies in our sample between 1994 and 2001, the majority was obligated in the form of hiring grants, which accounted for about $4.05 billion, or 67 percent of all obligations. About 82 percent, or about 9,100, of the agencies in our sample received at least one COPS grant, of any type, during this period, and about 75 percent received at least one hiring grant. By 2001, about 70 percent of the obligated amounts had been spent by the agencies that received the grants. In the sample of COPS grantee agencies for which we obtained population and crime data and could make comparisons, we found that the COPS Office distributed about half of the grant money to agencies covering populations of more than 150,000 and half to agencies with populations of less than 150,000. Because crime may not be directly related to population, one potential effect of the statutory requirement to allocate funds based upon population is that funds might not necessarily be allocated in relation to the volume of crime. We found that, in the aggregate, COPS grant funds were distributed in proportion to the total volume of index crimes, but they were not distributed in proportion to the volume of violent crimes in the agencies that fell into these two population categories. Our analysis of changes in policing practices shows that agencies that received COPS grant funds reported on average larger increases in policing practices than those agencies that did not receive a COPS grant. However, it may be the case that the receipt of COPS grants resulted from agencies' efforts to change policing as opposed to being the cause of the change in policing practices. Our regression models for estimating the effects of the variation in the timing and amount of COPS hiring grant expenditures per capita on the levels of sworn officers over the years from 1991 through 2001 showed that COPS hiring grant expenditures were associated with increases in the net number of sworn police officers. Specifically, from our analyses of data for police agencies serving populations of 10,000 or more persons we estimated that each $25,000 in COPS hiring grant expenditures per year added about 0.6 of a sworn officer to the net number of sworn officers. Using COPS hiring grants as a statistical link between the change in the number of sworn officers and the change in crime, we estimated that COPS-funded increases in sworn officers per capita were associated with declines in the rates of total index crimes, violent crimes, and property crimes in our sample of agencies serving populations of 10,000 or more persons. These effects held after we controlled for the effects of other federal law enforcement grant program expenditures by agencies, local socio-economic and demographic changes that could affect crime, and state-level factors--such as increases in incarceration, changes in sentencing practice, and state-level changes in other programs such as welfare--that could also affect crime.

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