President-Elect Obama’s stimulus package calls for $3 billion in new Byrne Grants, and $1 billion in COPS grants–both are federal block grant programs for local police departments. For some reason, Democrats seem to love these grants. The Bush administration and Republicans in Congress, oddly enough, had begun phasing them out.
As I explained in a piece for Slate last October, studies have shown both programs to be ineffective at fighting crime. Worse, there’s good evidence that they actually cause harm. While designated for community policing efforts (generally a good aim), COPS grants have actually been used by many departments to start or outfit SWAT teams, a point I explicitly made in July 2007 to Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), when I testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime he chairs. Scott seemed surprised when I told him. But apparently, it didn’t affect him enough to prevent him from restarting the program.
Byrne Grants, meanwhile, are often tied directly to drug arrests, warping police department priorities by encouraging low-level drug busts to juke up department arrest statistics . . . so they can apply for more grants. We have Byrne grants to thank for the civil rights disasters in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, and for the continuing problem of out of control multijurisdictional drug task forces.
I guess the important thing is that individual congressmen can once again send out self-congratulatory press releases announcing the big pile of pork they’ve just procured for the local police department.