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Laptops to the Rescue


ONE OF of President Clintons favorite boasts is that he put 100,000 new cops on the streets. He claimed in 1994 that putting the new cops on the street would make Americans freer from fear and that there is simply no better crime-fighting tool to be found than multiplying the number of government employees packing heat. Vice President Al Gore mentions the cop-hiring binge often, declaring earlier this year, Were putting 100,000 new police on our streets! More Americans are safer!

Despite $9 billion in federal spending, however, the claim of the Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) of 100,000 new police is another Washington fraud. Voodoo math was how one Florida police chief characterized the Clinton administrations claim of success.

Clintons new cops are often nothing more than federally paid purchases of laptop computers. In Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, 40 of the 82 new cops are actually equivalents in technology new cops created by claiming labor savings resulting from purchases of laptop computers and other equipment. The Omaha, Nebraska, police department was credited with hiring 72.8 new police officers after it received $2.8 million in federal grants to purchase laptop computers even though the laptop computers were not purchased.

A 1999 Department of Justice Inspector General (IG) report concluded that more than 40,000 of the 100,000 new cops are actually equivalents concocted as a result of assertions of time savings from new technology or from hiring civilians supposedly to do police paperwork or administrative duties. Such grants have their own acronym: MORE, for Making Officer Redeployment Effective.

As usual, the acronym has no relation to how the program actually operates. Seventy-eight percent of police departments that receive MORE grants can provide no evidence that federal aid actually led to more cops being on the street, according to the IG. Almost half of police departments simply substitute federal funds for local spending.

Unfortunately, some locales wish that the program paid for nothing but laptops. Clinton sometimes talks as if a police departments receiving a federal grant is like being touched by a magic wand, instilling a loftier and more noble attitude in the entire police force. However, the COPS grants have provoked revolts by ingrates across the country. Local governments must provide 25 percent of the salary of the new hires. Some locales have sought to make the new cops self-financing by setting up speed traps.

Perverting law enforcement

Residents in Johnstown, Ohio, are threatening to abolish the local police department, as the Chicago Tribune reported, because the addition of COPS officers led to the harassment of average citizens. Residents say that officers stop motorists on any pretext, including having too much snow or rust on a license plate. Potsdam, Ohio, a village of 250, received federal money to hire 11 cops. After one crackdown after another, local aldermen voted to suspend the entire police department. In tiny Lavon, Texas, COPS money was used to hire a police lieutenant who turned the police department into a criminal enterprise, using his powers to commit extortion, marijuana distribution, robbery and mail fraud, as the Wall Street Journal reported. (The lieutenant received nine years in prison for his achievements.)

Before COPS, Olympian Village, Missouri, had no police force; after receiving a federal grant, the town hired five cops. To raise money for the local government, the police busied themselves setting up illegal speed traps. The new police chief endeared himself to townspeople by attacking a resident with high grass on his lawn and kicking him in the face so hard that he broke a bone under the guys eye, as the Journal noted. Townspeople appealed to Robert Wilkins, the chief prosecutor of Jefferson County, Missouri, to investigate the wayward cops. Wilkins concluded, I find it positively frightening that the Justice Department would give money to such people.

Elsewhere, federal money is slopped out for purposes that have little or nothing to do with public safety. The Chicago Tribune noted, The Illinois Department of Natural Resources will use its grant money to hire 40 new officers whose tasks include directing traffic in parking lots and teaching children how to fish.

The Justice Department has little idea how the program is actually operating because 94 percent of police departments dont bother submitting mandatory financial status reports (or submit the reports late). The feds make no effort to verify claims of new hires. Nassau County, New York, received $26 million and was credited with hiring 327 new cops; an IG audit found that the county actually reduced its cop force by 218 officers, in spite of the grant.

Clinton perennially invokes his 100,000 new cops as a way to make average Americans feel that their federal government cares about them. But Kristen Mahoney, who worked in the federal program during its launch stage, observed, The COPS office started off on a wing and a prayer. They threw us into it and said that … we need to spend a billion dollars by the end of the year. The Chicago Tribune examined grants to the nations 50 largest police departments and found no correlation between the growth in number of officers and crime rates since 1993.

More money for less service

As usual, the federal government is spending tax dollars as an end in itself, with little or no concern about the actual effect. The Tribune noted:

The COPS program has earmarked $240 million for studies, training, and conferences, which Justice Department officials said [are] critical for spreading the word about community policing and improving local programs. But not a dime has been spent on quantifying what has become the programs main selling point that more cops means less crime.

Clinton and Gore are trying to build on the success of the original COPS program with a new 21st-century crime bill that will spend another $6 billion to buy more laptop computers and claim another 50,000 cops hired by 2005. But rather than more cops, we need fewer bad laws. Clean the statute books of all the laws that make government a public nuisance and redirect police efforts to their rightful role in solving crimes and apprehending criminals, and the nation will overnight have far more cops than it needs.

The Clinton administrations COPS campaign is another attempt to make people more dependent on government for their own safety and survival. At the same time that the Clintonites are trying to maximize the number of government employees packing heat, the Clinton administration has strongly opposed proposals to permit more private citizens to carry concealed weapons. According to several national studies, guns are used by private citizens to prevent crimes roughly two million times per year. Economist John Lott concluded that of all the methods studied so far by economists, the carrying of concealed handguns appears to be the most cost-effective method for reducing crime.

And there is danger in allowing local and state governments to become addicted to federal aid to pay for the most basic public service. Federal subsidies allow Washington to progressively dominate each activity that it sets out to aid. Politicians first assert their sacred duty to help those in need by creating a subsidy program and then assert their sacred duty to taxpayers to restrict the subsidy recipient in order to protect taxpayers investment. Government starts out acting generously and soon ends up dictating terms and conditions. The only way to assume that federal subsidies are compatible with individual liberty is to assume that politicians and bureaucrats do not like power.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.