Gaithersburg Police Chief Mary Ann Viverette wanted to start a new unit focusing on burglaries, car thefts and other street crimes in the fast-growing Maryland suburb, but she did not have the money to hire more officers.
So Viverette turned to the Justice Department's popular Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS, which allowed the Gaithersburg police to hire four new officers -- and have the federal government pick up most of the tab. In its first 10 months, the chief said, the unit has made more than 100 arrests.
"We would not have been able to do this without the COPS program," said Viverette, whose department has a total of 44 officers. "It really gave us the leverage at budget time so that we knew we could afford to hire them."
But 10 years and more than 118,000 police officers later, the COPS hiring program -- championed by President Bill Clinton and criticized by some Republicans -- appears to be coming to an end. After several years of sharp cutbacks under President Bush, the program handed out its last scheduled round of grants for hiring police officers earlier this month, and the administration's 2005 budget proposal contains no money for more. It is not clear whether Congress will intervene to rescue the program.
Bush administration officials say the Universal Hiring Program, as the grants are known, has more than met its original goal of putting 100,000 new police officers on U.S. streets, and stress that COPS will continue to offer grants for new technology, school-resource officers and law enforcement training. The administration has allocated $97 million for such programs in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, along with money for additional law enforcement initiatives in other parts of the Justice Department.
"When people talk about decreasing the COPS program, that is not the whole story," said John Nowacki, a Justice Department spokesman. "We've met the goal of hiring 100,000 officers, and the Bush administration has provided more funding for state and local assistance than any other time in history."
But the decision to phase out grants for regular police officers has drawn sharp criticism from law enforcement organizations and many Democrats. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee, said earlier this month that police officers were "tired of a president who takes cops off the street with one hand and puts . . . military assault weapons back on with the other," referring to the Sept. 13 expiration of the federal ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons.
"The Bush administration has gone out of its way to dismantle a program that put more than 100,000 cops on the beat at a time when terrorism makes it more important than ever," said Phil Singer, a Kerry spokesman.
Since its inception in 1995, the COPS program has handed out more than $9 billion in grants for the police hiring program, spokesman Gilbert Moore said. Under the terms of the program, the federal government paid for 75 percent of the cost of each officer over the first three years; localities were required to come up with the other 25 percent, and also had to agree to fully fund a fourth year on their own.
A series of outside studies over the years, however, revealed problems in the way the COPS program was administered, including findings by the Justice Department's inspector general in 1999 that thousands of officers were not retained after the grant periods had expired and that some departments were illegally using grant money for existing operations.
Many conservatives also objected to dedicating federal funds for local law enforcement, and argued there was scant evidence that COPS contributed to the plunging crime rates of the 1990s.
"Programs such as COPS with a long history of poor performance are prime candidates for reductions because they not only have failed to achieve their goals, but also have assigned to the federal government functions that fall within the expertise, jurisdiction, and constitutional responsibilities of state and local governments," a Heritage Foundation report concluded in 2003.
But the program was highly popular among local governments and police executives, particularly in small and rural communities with a limited ability to expand their police forces on their own.
Ed Mosca, chief of the 22-officer police department in the resort town of Old Saybrook, Conn., said he was able to make about a half dozen hires through COPS over the last decade, including establishing a community-policing unit at a local shopping mall. Mosca said that small departments such as his often struggle to keep up with personnel and technology needs and that the urgent focus on counterterrorism preparedness since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has added significantly to the pressure.
"The demise of the program will certainly have an impact on us, and I'm fearful of what that will mean," said Mosca, who is the legislative chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Departments of our size would not have embarked on such programs without COPS."
Two of those hired by Mosca's department, however, are school-resource officers, a program that is slated to continue under the Bush administration's proposed budget. The "COPS in Schools" program, begun in 1999, has awarded nearly $750 million for the hiring of more than6,500 officers, COPS spokesman Moore said.
Nowacki said other programs that would continue or be expanded under the COPS moniker include $17 million for training and technical assistance, $20 million for tribal law enforcement programs and $10 million for police training. Some other programs that had previously been administered by COPS have been moved to other Justice agencies or the Department of Homeland Security, Nowacki said.
But many police chiefs say that what they really need are more officers.
"The manpower needs are our most important needs right now," Viverette said. "The best thing I can do for the community is put officers on the street. Without COPS, it's not as likely that we will be able to continue to add to our manpower."