Friday, October 28, 2011

Fearmongering for COPS Funding

By Tracy Velázquez

Back when the first “stimulus” bill – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA – came out in 2009, JPI and a number of other organizations sent a letter to Congress saying that spending billions for the COPS (Community Oriented Policing) program and other law enforcement would be a poor investment. Two and a half years later, with this money largely spent, we know little about what the outcomes were, either in terms of job creation or increased public safety.

Yet here we are again, with the administration trying to shove another $4 billion in COPS spending down our throats via the President’s jobs bill. Attorney General Holder reaffirmed that ramping up law enforcement was a top priority in his speech at the Association of Chiefs of Police conference on Monday.

While there was no advocates “call to action” this time – perhaps because of cynicism that the “jobs” part of the American Jobs Act is on anything besides a spur track to nowhere – recent administration efforts to crank up support for the legislation by sensationalizing and misrepresenting crime in this country are too objectionable to let slide.

In case you missed it, Vice President Biden stumped for the American Jobs Act last week in Flint, Michigan, and implied that if we don’t support the COPS funding, we’d be unleashing a violent crime wave. In addition to using overblown and inaccurate data on rape and murder for Flint, Biden said of those who oppose the funding, “I wish they had some notion what it’s like to be on the other side of a gun. Or a 200 pound man standing over you telling you to submit.”

That Biden chose Flint was no accident. Flint does have a higher-than average crime rate. But the Vice President certainly wasn’t going make his argument that we need more cops if he used national data, which shows that violent crime dropped six percent in the U.S. in 2010. In fact, violent crime in the U.S. has dropped for four years in a row. Declines in both property and violent crime in 2010 were seen in all regions of the country. The two offenses that Biden highlighted in his recent speeches - murder and rape - went down 4.2 and 5 percent respectively. It should be noted that these drops in crime occurred while state prison populations were also falling, and while the country is experiencing its first-ever national decrease in law enforcement positions.

If adding more police were innocuous – like paying someone to paint a building that had just been painted a year ago – spending $4 billion on policing might be considered just another way to keep people off unemployment. However, experience shows otherwise. More police means more people arrested for low-level offenses, particularly when one of the measures for success is arrests (as it was with ARRA). And this will mean more individuals with an arrest or conviction record, making them much less likely to be employed, particularly in this economy. Policing historically has focused disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color, which have already borne the burden of the economic downturn. And while the feds might be willing to pay for the extra policing, state and local government will be picking up the check for locking more people up.

If the Administration wants to use a jobs program to reduce crime, they'd do better by increasing funding for drug and mental health treatment in the community and investing in jobs for youth workers who provide services to keep at risk kids on track. These programs and services have been shown time and again to help prevent people from coming into contact with the justice system. And reducing barriers and increasing employment opportunities for people returning to the community from jails and prisons would also be effective. Certainly, their proposal to hire more teachers will do much more to increase public safety than more police, and will provide a more educated workforce to boot - a truly long term economic impact.

It’s disappointing to see top members of the Obama administration resorting to fear mongering and belittling those with legitimate criticism of their proposed policies. Even if the American Jobs Act fails, or the funding for more policing is omitted, this type of rhetoric has the potential to impede the progress that has been made to reduce incarceration and the overuse of the justice system in this country. And that would indeed be a crime against all of us.

Tracy Velázquez is the Executive Director of JPI.

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