Vice President Joe Biden has claimed that crime will increase if Congress rejects President Obama’s plan to spend an additional $5 billion on federal subsidies for the salaries of local police officers and firefighters.
Proponents of these subsidies have a history of making outrageous claims. In 2006, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) — a national membership organization of progressive police executives from the largest policy departments — warned the nation that the violent-crime rate, as reported by the FBI, increased between 2004 and 2005. PERF concluded that this one-year increase represented “the front end of a tipping point of an epidemic of violence not seen for years.” Then PERF called on Congress to increase funding for federal subsidies of the routine activities of local law enforcement.
Fortunately, the epidemic of violence so eagerly predicted by PERF has yet to materialize. The FBI’s data indicates that in 2007, the violent-crime rate decreased and is slightly below the level reported in 2005. The national decline in crime continues today.
Most of the additional $5 billion in spending would be allocated to the “hiring” grant program operated by Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). A lesser amount would be allocated to the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program administered by Federal Emergency Management Agency.
We’ve seen this playbook before. In 2009, the stimulus bill allocated hundreds of millions of new spending on COPS and SAFER grants. These federal dollars were used not to hire additional police officers and firefighters but to pay for the salaries of currently employed police officers and firefighters.
Created in the middle of Pres. Bill Clinton’s first term, COPS promised to put 100,000 new state and local law-enforcement officers on the streets by 2000. Research by the Heritage Foundation has demonstrated that COPS failed to add 100,000 additional officers and was ineffective at reducing crime.
Despite millions in grants across the United States, the SAFER program has not reduced the number of deaths and injuries resulting from fires. A Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis report found that SAFER grants that subsidized the salaries of firefighters did not reduce firefighter and civilian deaths and injuries. Fire departments that did not receive federal grants were just as successful at preventing fire casualties as grant-funded fire departments.
State and local officials, not the federal government, are responsible for funding the staffing levels of police and fire departments. By paying for the salaries of police officers and firefighters, COPS and SAFER fund the routine, day-to-day functions of police and fire departments. When Congress subsidizes local public-safety agencies in this manner, it effectively reassigns to the federal government the powers and responsibilities that fall squarely within the expertise, historical control, and constitutional authority of state and local governments.
The COPS and SAFER programs have an extensive track record of poor performance. They unnecessarily perform functions that are the responsibility of state and local governments. Massive new spending on these programs in the 2009 stimulus bill failed to boost economic activity. So why are President Obama and Senate Democrats calling for a repeat performance?
The answer is obvious: Their proposal is another sop to the police and firefighter unions. Our nation can no longer afford such wasteful and unwarranted spending.
— David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D., is a research fellow in empirical policy analysis in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation.