On Monday, President Obama requested that lawmakers authorize an additional $263 million in federal spending for local law enforcement agencies over the next three years for training and 50,000 body cameras. Like most reforms pushed in the wake of a high-profile incident, the additional expenditure is a quintessential case of "being seen doing something," and will likely contribute only to the national debt. Worse, the proposed spending would further erode the accountability local police have to the community.
Federal spending in this area is hardly novel. The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, since its inception in 1968 as the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, has been a vector for diverting federal funds to the operation and support of state and local law enforcement agencies. The Byrne JAG program is an amalgam of other federal law enforcement assistance programs, such as the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant and Community Oriented Policing Services program, merged in 2005. Statutorily, the Byrne JAG program is authorized to receive appropriations of over $1 billion per year, though the cap is rarely reached outside of the one-time $2 billion adjunct to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
From fiscal years 1998 through 2012, the federal government has issued more than $10 billion in justice assistance grants for equipment procurement, training, research and salary support; an average of nearly $687 million per year. These grants are in addition to local and state taxes in support of law enforcement activities.
Under the current grant framework, roughly 40 percent of the aggregate total goes directly to local law enforcement agencies pursuant to the various JAG programs, while 60 percent is given to the states as a block grant for disbursement to local agencies. While this does allow a modicum of state control over this money, the sub-grants must meet a well-defined set of criteria. These criteria function as a de facto mandate for local law enforcement, regardless of whether or not these sub-grants are in the best interest of the local population, or even appropriate.
Of course, this is to say nothing of the Department of Defense's embattled 1033 program for distributing surplus military equipment, largely seen as contributing to the heavy-handed response used in the initial wave of Ferguson, Mo. protests. This federal charity has led to some questionable disbursements, such as school districts acquiring tactical weaponry such as assault rifles, grenade launchers and armored vehicles.
The president, however, remains intransigent on reforms to the 1033 program.
Perhaps most counterproductive to the desired reform is the dependency on the federal government engendered by state and local law enforcement agencies. If law enforcement agencies are to be beholden to the constituents they are policing, their funding should be contingent in large part on their satisfaction with the service provided.
Having the local police as a federal supplicant may seem benign when positive, evidence-based reforms are being forwarded, but such is not a model of responsive policing. Under this model, departments would be more accountable to bureaucrats and politicized formulae than to those from whom their authority is derived and will lack any flexibility outside of future fiats. A local policing agenda that comes from Capitol Hill or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be wholly political, captured by special interests and give little weight to the people it purports to help.
Criminal justice policy is, and always has been, controlled at the state level. This authority is then delegated to cities and counties pursuant to most states' constitutions. This ensures that the potentially coercive authority of government is accountable to elected local — and distally to state — officials. Supporters of recent reform efforts would be more effective seeing that individuals maintain as much control over their police as possible, rather than rattling a cup at the federal government.
Body cameras have been shown to lower the incidents of hostile interactions with the police and have exonerated many falsely accused police officers facing charges of unscrupulous conduct. Even police officers are, generally, supportive of them. However, it should be the prerogative of the local electorate to determine if their police forces should undertake the considerable expense in equipping, training and maintaining their police forces with these devices.
Cohen is the policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice. Follow him on Twitter @CohenAtTPPF.