WASHINGTON ― In the months leading up to the election, Donald Trump touted his support for law enforcement on the campaign trail, telling police officers that he’d have their back when he got to the White House. Now, with the Trump administration reportedly considering killing off a Justice Department office that has distributed billions in federal funding to local police agencies across the country, even some of president’s law enforcement supporters are worried.
Concerns about the future of DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, grew out of a report in The Hill last week on the Trump administration’s budget plans. The new administration’s working budget, The Hill said, closely matched a budget blueprint from the conservative Heritage Foundation ― a budget that calls for eliminating the COPS Office altogether.
Despite multiple requests to government officials over several days about the future of the COPS Office, the Trump administration has yet to offer clarity on the issue. But supporters of the COPS Office ― Republicans, Democrats and a prominent law enforcement organization that endorsed Trump ― tell The Huffington Post they’re prepared to fight for its future.
“We support the COPS office and will discuss that support with the Administration as well as on the Hill,” Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, told HuffPost in an email. (In a phone call after this story published, Pasco said he was “cautiously optimistic” about convincing the Trump administration and Congress to keep the COPS Office around.)
The FOP, which endorsed Trump for president in September, could hold a lot of sway in the Trump administration. Still, the idea that Trump and congressional Republicans would even consider cutting funds to law enforcement may come as a shock to many in the policing world who have listened to their rhetoric in recent months.
During his presidential campaign, Trump declared himself the “law and order candidate” and said police were “the most mistreated people” in America. In his first days as president, the Trump administration has vowed to “end” what they describe as a “dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.” Several House Republicans recently spent several days trying to make their support for law enforcement clear by taking turns removing a teenager’s painting from a hallway on Capitol Hill because they believed it was anti-police.
Their pro-cop rhetoric aside, congressional Republicans have threatened the COPS funding before. A 2012 fiscal year budget out of the House would have eliminated COPS funding altogether, which FOP national president Chuck Canterbury said at the time was “simply irresponsible.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s pick for attorney general, has previously voted to cut funding for the program (a Sessions spokeswoman said they would not address policy questions until after his confirmation). And if Trump’s budget really does closely match the blueprint produced by Heritage, the COPS program is in significant danger.
The COPS Office was created during the Clinton administration as part of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and has distributed more than $14 billion in grants. A recent report on the impact of COPS spending said the additional officers helped deter crime, and that the evidence suggested “additional police resources represent a cost-effective approach to reduce crime.” In addition to providing direct funding to police agencies, the office has supported law enforcement studies and collaborative reform efforts to bring about change in local police departments. A COPS-funded report on the police response to the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, found that unconstitutional and “provocative” tactics used by St. Louis County law enforcement agencies escalated tensions in the region, and offered guidance for agencies dealing with protests.
Ron Davis, a law enforcement veteran who until recently served as director of the COPS Office under former President Barack Obama, said it would be a “huge mistake” to eliminate COPS and said it would violate Trump’s pledge to support police officers.
“If you make the campaign promise of supporting local law enforcement, then the support has to extend beyond rhetoric,” Davis told HuffPost. “Real support means you’re going to fund them, you’re going to help train them, you’re going to make sure they have the tools necessary to be safe and the skill sets necessary to police a democratic society appropriately. That’s support. Just simple rhetoric like ‘I like the police’ doesn’t help the police. I’m sure the rhetoric is appreciated, but that’s not support.”
Last year, 173 Democrats and Republicans in the House sent a letter to the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the program to urge its renewal. “These programs are critical to ensuring that state and local law enforcement have the tools, personnel, and resources necessary to protect and serve their communities,” the members wrote.
This week, some House Republicans indicated they wouldn’t immediately go along with a Trump budget that would gut an office that is strongly backed by law enforcement groups.
Steve Stivers of Ohio, the National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman, said that if Trump did propose a funding cut, “I would want to hear why he would want to eliminate it.”
“Obviously we can’t do everything, but I think that program’s worked,” Stivers said, noting that Republicans have voted for the program in the past.
A spokeswoman for the co-chairman of the Congressional Law Enforcement Caucus, Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), said the power of the purse lays with Congress, and this program shares bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. “Ultimately it will be Congress who decides its fate,” his spokeswoman said.
But Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), the other co-chair of the caucus, said recent reports that funding for the COPS program may be targeted for elimination are “extremely concerning to me and they should concern every American.”
“Despite Republicans’ claim to support law enforcement, right wing tea-partiers don’t put their pocket book where their mouth is by targeting the COPS program for cuts and even elimination since fiscal year 2014,” Pascrell said.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) wrote a letter to Trump urging him to reject proposals to cut COPS. “You have publicly stated your commitment to stand up for our law enforcement community, empower our law enforcement officers to do their jobs, and support their mission of protecting the public,” Ryan wrote. “You have also stated the belief that ‘our country needs more law enforcement, more community engagement, and more effective policing.’ As your administration works to prepare a budget, I hope it will keep these commitments in mind as it decides the future of COPS grants.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, said that Democrats were the only thing stopping House Republican appropriators from ending the COPS program. “We hope that enough Republicans realize the critical role this initiative plays in keeping so many communities and neighborhoods safe across this country and reject this foolish, ideological proposal,” he said.
It’s unclear if Trump really sees the value in community policing grants, if he is fully aware of the work of the office, or if he’s even aware of concerns his budget will put COPS on the chopping block. But bolstering the COPS Office would certainly be in keeping with Trump’s campaign pledges, as he’s characterized American cities as full of carnage and ravaged by drugs and violence.
The COPS program has been used in the past to help combat methamphetamine and now heroin, as well as all manners of violence ― even domestic terrorism. But funding for the program has varied greatly over the years, fluctuating from around $1.55 billion as recently as 2009 to $198.5 million in fiscal year 2012, the compromise reached after the House budget would have eliminated the office altogether. (Funding has remained at around $200 million ever since, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to boost the COPS budget.)
Trump’s campaign previously told the International Association of Chiefs of Police that the federal government “should provide assistance to state and local law enforcement” without dictating or interfering in their activities, “unless invited in by appropriate authorities or when verifiably improper behavior is clearly demonstrated.” The federal government, the campaign’s statement said, “can provide grants to assist departments” and provide excess equipment.
“However, the burden for local law enforcement is local, after all,” the campaign told the IACP. “It is by taking the burden off state and local governments that the federal government can best assist.”
Since The Hill reported last week that the COPS Office could be eliminated, the issue has received national and local coverage. In South Carolina, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook told a local news station that COPS was “instrumental” for law enforcement and that they’d used COPS grants to fund 15 officer positions. In Ohio, Youngstown Mayor John McNally told a station the COPS grants had been “beneficial” to the city and allowed the police department to recently hire six new officers.
The COPS Office, meanwhile, has remained silent on the issue. At Justice Department headquarters, a spokesman said any future proposals “would be developed in concert with the Department’s new leadership upon arrival, and discussed with [The Office of Management and Budget] and the Executive Office of the President as part of the budget process.” One White House spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests for comment over several days, while another White House official said they would follow up when more information on the budget was available.
The lack of clarity on the future of the COPS Office under Trump leaves officers who have relied on the grants worried. Chris Cognac, a sergeant with the Hawthorne Police Department in LA County who previously served as a fellow at the COPS Office, wrote an open letter to President Trump asking him to keep the office intact.
“Mr. President-elect I am telling you, the Office of Community Policing is a vital tool that police departments and officers in America need now more than ever. Police-community engagement is just as important as enforcement. Please don’t tie one hand behind our backs. Give us all the tools we need to stay safe and do our jobs,” Cognac wrote.
“You have had great support from law enforcement during the campaign, you promised to support police officers and help them do the difficult jobs they have. You said you would give them the tools that were needed to succeed. I, Sergeant Chris Cognac, am asking you to do just that.”
Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington and Matt Fuller reported from Philadelphia.