COPS Grants Leave Smaller Departments Disappointed
By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY – One of the most sought after grants under the federal Recovery Act is also turning out to be one of the most criticized stimulus grants, at least in Oklahoma.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, office solicited applications from law enforcement agencies across the country for $1 billion in stimulus grants. The response was overwhelming: nearly 7,300 agencies submitted applications with grant requests totaling $8.3 billion.
The COPS Hiring Recovery Program (CHRP) grants were advertised as being intended to help both large and small police departments hire new officers, and Oklahoma policing agencies, especially those in rural parts of the state, were eager to jump on board.
In Owasso, Oklahoma (population: 26,600) there are currently 48 officers on the police force, and they’'e plenty busy.
"When I started up here, this was just a big, huge, open field," said Owasso Police Sgt. Mike Barnes.
Barnes, a 10-year veteran of the Owasso Police Department, said rampant commercial development means officers are stretched thin having to handle an increasing number of car wrecks and increased crime.
"There's more traffic. There's more people coming from different areas around here to shop, and also to shoplift, break in to cars, things like that," Barnes said.
Deputy Police Chief Scott Chambless said it is a concern.
"We do not have the number of officers we'd like to have," Chambless said.
Chambless said the CHRP grants came along at the right time, and they submitted an application for $812,000, enough money for them to hire three new officers, one school resource officer and two patrol officers.
There was no limit on the amount of money for which a jurisdiction could apply. The limiting factor was the condition that once the stimulus money runs out, after three years, the community is committed to pick up the officers' salaries for a fourth year.
Owasso, like every other town that applied, was prepared to make that commitment. Chief Chambless said the payoff would have been improved safety for both his officers and for the general populace.
"We do sometimes have those shifts where we're looking for additional officers, and our officers have to show up on calls by themselves that they probably shouldn't be showing up on calls by themselves to," Chambless said.
In Tuttle, Oklahoma (population: 5,800), eight patrol officers are responsible for policing 30 square miles.
Tuttle Police Officer Andrew Graham loves his job, even if, as on the day we rode with him, he does feel somewhat short-handed.
"Right now, there's myself and one other officer on for the entire city. So, some days it can be real busy," Graham said.
Graham and his colleagues do their best to be proactive checking in regularly with residents and business owners and looking for tip-offs to possible problems.
Still, Chief Don Cluck is concerned about low staffing and decided to apply for a $330,000 COPS grant, also for three new officers.
"We applied for three officers in hopes of maybe even getting just one because we knew it was gonna be a very competitive grant," Cluck said.
It was very competitive. Tuttle and Owasso, it turned out, were two of 158 Oklahoma law enforcement agencies to apply for the stimulus hiring funds.
Each state was guaranteed a minimum of $5 million. Oklahoma ended up with $5.1 million, and while some states had more than 100 police agencies awarded grants (California: 109), Oklahoma was awarded just four.
Broken Bow was awarded a grant worth $117,000, to hire one officer; The Choctaw Nation will get $114,000, also to hire one officer; Oklahoma City was approved for a grant of $1.4 million, which will pay for seven new officers; and Tulsa, with $3.5 million, will be able to hire 18 new police officers.
What were they feeling in Tuttle and Owasso when they heard the news?
"It was real disappointing to see that they ended up giving it to the bigger agencies like Tulsa," Cluck said.
As a whole, the $1 billion in grant funding was split evenly between large departments (populations greater than 150,000) and small departments (populations less than 150,000). But Oklahoma’s share of the money was not split evenly: 95 percent of the state's $5.1 million was awarded to its two largest police departments.
In the COPS Office in Washington, D.C., a spokesperson said this was unintentional, and that approval of grant applications was based on a simple, standardized ranking system.
"We looked at a couple of things, and we tried to be as objective as possible," said Gilbert Moore, COPS spokesperson.
Moore explained that the applications were ranked based on two criteria -- a jurisdiction's fiscal strength, and its crime rate.
The result was that only the highest-crime, lowest-income communities were approved for the stimulus money. A community could be in tough financial straits, but if the town's most recent uniform crime report wasn't equally rough, the application wasn't likely to get approved.
COPS officials said communities like Owasso and Tuttle certainly aren't alone in feeling disappointed not to get any of the money.
"We'd love to support more of Oklahoma's communities, but unfortunately in this particular go-round, the demand was just so great and we had so many requests that it was impossible," Moore said.
Still, in places like Tuttle, they can't but feel that the process wasn't as fair as it could have been. They said they were led to believe that rural departments would have an equal shot at the money, but that didn’t happen in Oklahoma.
"There were just a lot more, smaller agencies where that money could’ve gone, and could’ve helped a lot," Cluck said.