By Kevin Johnson
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department gave more than $77 million in stimulus funds this year to 200 police agencies because of their locations rather than economic or crime-fighting needs, department records show.
That's because the program to help law enforcement agencies hire more officers is required under a 1994 rule by Congress to distribute money to every state where police or sheriff departments apply for aid, regardless of how urgent their need. Some of the largest police agencies complain that they got shortchanged despite more severe crime problems and economic troubles than many recipients.
The Justice Department set up a ranking system that scored agencies based on economic need, crime levels and crime-reduction strategies. However, the congressional requirement to distribute money broadly has prompted the National Sheriffs' Association to call for a "re-examination" of the criteria because it contends the rule funded just 6.4% of sheriff applicants, compared with 16.7% of police agencies, says Ann Yom, the association's director of government affairs.
In Houston, where increasing assaults nudged up violent crime in 2008, Police Chief Harold Hurtt says the city was "overlooked." The agency requested money for 260 officers but got nothing despite a Justice Department score of 90.4. That was well above many of the agencies that qualified because they were the only applicants in their state, including Boise, which scored 58.5; Cheyenne, Wyo., 46.8; Honolulu, 81.3; and Omaha, 84.7.
"It's hard for me to say that Boise deserved or had a greater need than some of our competitors," Boise Deputy Police Chief Pat Braddock says. The department got more than $2 million to hire nine officers, even though it had not had to layoff anyone and had seen crime decline for three years, he says.
The New York Police Department -- which scored 65, topping Boise -- had sought funding for 2,000 officers but also got nothing. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne says the rejection was a failure to recognize a near-constant threat of terrorism.
The Justice Department said the money set aside under Congress' requirement is a small portion of the $1 billion in stimulus aid available for hiring officers. Given the constraint, "each of the departments that received such funding were appropriate recipients," Justice spokesman Gilbert Moore says.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors backs the Justice Department but notes the "concerns" raised by law enforcement agencies. "The way to solve this problem is ... to increase the funding," the group said in an Oct. 16 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
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