Erie at Large: Sen. Casey calls for more COPS
In the face of recent violence, Erie struggles for a solution.
In this, what seems to be, the summer of fear and loathing over gun violence and population decline, a Congressional showdown is brewing over funding for the Department of Justice and its affiliated programs. The conflict pits members of the House against colleagues in the Senate over how the DOJ funds are allocated for what are known as Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).
The program, in part, aids the federal government in fulfilling the mission of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, a sweeping piece of legislation signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. In the midst of the turbulent '60s, the omnibus crime control act expanded the FBI, set provisions for wiretapping the "radical chic" of the anti-war and civil rights movements, and attempted to address the real and perceived degradation of communities across the U.S.
COPS has been at the forefront of Sen. Bob Casey's (D-PA) agenda for several years, particularly the provision that disburses federal employment grants to local law enforcement. So his rhetoric sounded familiar when he entered Erie City Hall on Aug. 10 with Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott at his side and a cadre of police brass in the room as part of a campaign in support of Congressional appropriations for COPS hiring grants, which are federal funds awarded to municipalities to cover the salaries of police officers for the first three years of employment. After that, the municipality assumes responsibility for the officers' salaries.
Casey has also been in Wilkes-Barre and Reading, communities that, like Erie, have faced increasing rates of violence and drug use, both of which COPS is intended to address.
In 2009, the only year since 2000 that the program was fully funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the City of Erie was awarded $1.56 million – money it used to hire six police officers.
Sinnott says that the COPS grant was an effective mechanism for the city to hire new officers at a time when it would not have been feasible to do so because of the City's financial state.
"If we were going to seek more grant funding through the COPS program, we would use the funds in the same way – to hire police officers," Sinnott says.
Statewide, nearly 3,700 police officers and sheriffs have been hired with COPS grants since 1995. Program funds can also be used to purchase equipment or to provide training.
But since 2011, cuts to the COPS program have meant less money for the hiring grants, and earlier this summer the House of Representatives passed a bill that earmarked $237.5 million for the COPS program – including $11 million for "anti-methamphetamine-related activities" that would be transferred to the Drug Enforcement Agency – but zero of those dollars are for hiring grants.
Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA3) voted for the bill, but Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA5) voted against it. Thompson and Rep. Joe Pitts (R–PA16) were the only Republicans in the Pa. delegation to vote against the bill. Pitts' district contains parts of Chester, Lancaster, and Berks counties, including Reading. The vote fell along party lines with the exception of just 12 Democrats voting for the bill and 10 Republicans voting against it.
The Kelly camp says that cuts to COPS are part of the "House Republican Budget Blueprint," which would purportedly balance the federal budget over a 10-year period.
Funding for the COPS hiring grants has remained flat since 2012, when Congress appropriated $166 million for the program. The past two years, COPS hiring grants have been funded at $180 million dollars, comprising the majority of the program's funding. The COPS program has lost $118 million in funding since 2010.
The Senate version of the appropriations bill would allocate $187 million of the program's $212 million budget for hiring new officers.
Sen. Casey is making the rounds looking for support in the House of Representatives, trying to build political will by gathering endorsements and anecdotes from local law enforcement and municipal leadership across the Commonwealth. Two of the ten Republicans to vote against the House version of the funding bill are from Pa., and the fact that they represent regions that have been awarded competitive grants is telling. What's also telling is that the representative for the City of Erie refuses to buck party ideology for the people he represents.
In an era in which municipal credit scores dictate the quality and quantity of municipal services, be it law enforcement or education, the rare hand of the federal government should be welcome in municipal affairs. Otherwise, crime and violence will continue to grow disproportionately to the community's ability to fund and implement strategies of policing and prevention.
Jim Wertz can be reached at jWertz@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @jim_wertz.