House Dems’ Reforms Are Not Enough — Congress Must End Federal Policing Funding

The unending killing of Black people at the hands of police forces, and the sustained, relentless and highly visible police violence inflicted on protesters represent a grave and immediate national crisis.

The Justice in Policing Act put forth by House Democrats attempts to address this moment, but falls frighteningly short. We will not see any end to this crisis until the federal government reckons with one of its most important roles in fueling police violence: money.

There are aspects of the Justice in Policing Act, including ending qualified immunity and establishing a federal registry of police misconduct, that are not harmful. But the myriad ways in which it provides additional funds and legitimacy towards the current system of policing — whether through trainings, standards, data collection or accreditation programs — is neither responsive to the demands of the millions of people taking to the streets in protest, nor to the simple reality of what federal interventions would be most impactful — and most needed.

To begin, Congress must grapple with an uncomfortable truth: By sending billions of federal dollars to local policing over the last 25 years, it has helped precipitate the policing crisis that we find ourselves in today.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which established the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Program. The program was designed to incentivize state and local law enforcement agencies to purchase new equipment, develop and distribute new technologies, and ultimately increase the number of officers deployed throughout the United States. After an initial appropriation of $8.8 billion between 1995 and 2000, the COPS Program has granted over $14 billion to state and local governments since its establishment.

The program was successful in its mission — especially in flooding communities with policing.

In just the first few years of its existence, the COPS Program directly contributed to the hiring of 100,000 police officers nationwide. Hiring of police officers has continued unabated over the last 25 years. The COPS program has accelerated the school-to-prison pipeline — funneling billions of federal dollars to the expansion of policing and surveillance infrastructure in public schools, and the funding of thousands upon thousands of school police officers.

The COPS Program has had compounding negative effects: Once federal funding ended, local communities were left to pay for policing without further support from the federal government, which meant cities were quickly forced to bear the burden of these costs. And as a result today, police budgets in cities across the nation have exploded, resulting in the structural under-resourcing of community needs.

Despite designs to legitimize police forces through training and “community policing,” the COPS program has deepened the violence of policing. “Training” is not inherently good: The COPS program led to the expansion of training in “threat neutralization” and combat skills techniques that police have used in the horrific killings of children like Tamir Rice.

Just recently, the COPS office announced nearly $400 million in grant funding through the COPS Hiring Program, which will fund 596 law enforcement agencies to hire 2,732 additional full-time law enforcement personnel. Amid the COVID-19 disaster, the House of Representatives recently and bafflingly included an additional $300 million in funding to the COPS office in the “HEROES Act.”

Federal programs such as COPS have directly contributed to the increased size, scope and role of policing across cities in our country, and subsequently the endless stream of killings and violence perpetrated by law enforcement.

If these facts are not enough, House Democrats should be particularly outraged that the COPS Program is currently being used to resource a disturbing pet project created by Donald Trump and Bill Barr, entitled “Operation Relentless Pursuit” — an initiative designed to deploy federal law enforcement agents to U.S. cities already grappling with extraordinary, and often violent, police presence and domination. The Bureau of Justice Assistance and the COPS office recently awarded another $61 million in grant funding to support this dangerous and misguided initiative.

So what should Congress do now?

It can begin by reversing its course of action, and permanently ending and ceasing any further appropriation of funding to local law enforcement, whether for trainings, equipment, hiring, re-hiring or overtime.

Congress allocating any resources, even with strings attached, toward policing — an institution that already receives over $100 billion in public resources annually — particularly in the wake of our current economic crisis and police violence crisis, is both illogical and stands to inflame an already tense situation. The Justice in Policing Act’s purported attempts to support community-led safety efforts are feeble and underwhelming at best. They actually undermine social movement demands: Instead of federal funds to support community organizations developing and running alternatives to policing, it creates “policing innovation grants” to “enhance community service and accountability of law enforcement officers.”

Congress should immediately disband all funding streams for policing, including programs under the COPS Program, and redirect those and additional resources towards much needed community-led public safety efforts outside of policing, as demanded by the Movement for Black Lives.

If the last few days and months have shown us anything, it is the need for a nationwide reimagining of public safety that does not include further allocation of vital shared resources to police.

Millions of people across the nation are making this argument with their voices, signs, and moral outrage. Why won’t Congress listen?