Despite federal funding, San Bernardino failed to add to its police
Staff. Joanna Banks and Ben Goad; The Press-Enterprise|
February 04, 2001, Sunday Copyright 2001
The Press Enterprise Co.
The Press-Enterprise (RIVERSIDE, CA.)
February 04, 2001, Sunday
(SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.) --Four years after San Bernardino police began spending more than $4 million from a federal program intended to put 100,000 new foot soldiers on the nation's streets, the grant money has not increased the department's size by a single officer, internal police and Justice Department records show.
San Bernardino's grant came from an $8.8 billion federal initiative begun in 1994 under then-President Bill Clinton to fund a number of community-policing programs, including a so-called universal hiring plan.
San Bernardino Police Chief Lee Dean has acknowledged that the $4.1 million accepted through the grant program from 1996 to 2000 did not accomplish its goal of adding, filling and retaining 22 patrol positions.
Still, Dean maintains that the Community Oriented Policing Services program has improved his department, and federal officials, until recently, have appeared to look the other way.
Dean said a series of unforeseen circumstances, including the dissolution of a special assessment district that helped pay officers' salaries, made the retention goal unattainable.
Rather than add the required 22 street-level positions over thelife of the grant and gradually absorb them into the city'sgeneral fund, the department has created only four newpositions.
To date, not one of those has been filled.
"The reality is, when the assessment district collapsed, we supplanted," Dean said. "You've got to do what you've got to do. We did what we were compelled to do in good faith and with full disclosure.
"If someone wants to say that's a technical violation of the law -- then OK, but I haven't heard anyone say that," he said.
David Buchanan of the COPS office in Washington, D.C., said he was precluded from discussing San Bernardino's case in detail because it is part of an ongoing investigation, but said departments found guilty of misusing grant money would be penalized.
"There is a chance that (the San Bernardino Police Department) will pay for this," Buchanan said. "Those that don't play fair get punished."
San Bernardino police Capt. Robert Curtis confirmed that the project's aim of increasing the number of officers on city streets was not realized.
"In terms of personnel numbers, we are not better off than we were before the COPS Universal Hiring Grant," Curtis said.
Nevertheless, the money was a sound investment in helping the city enact high-quality, street-oriented training for its officers, Curtis said.
But the universal hiring program runs on a basic premise of increasing police forces, Buchanan said.
"If an agency has 100 officers, we give them 10 and we expect them to be at 110 officers," he said.
The Justice Department reviewed San Bernardino's program in 1999 and did not immediately have concerns about the city's use of the money, Buchanan said. However, the office's legal division has in recent weeks taken a renewed interest in the city's inability to increase its force through the program, he added.
The COPS office acknowledged this week that although it was not permitted under the rules of the program, officials allowed some agencies to "supplant" -- or use the grant money in place of other funds.
"The supplanting issue is not the intention of the program, but under some circumstances that's authorized," said Jeff Thorson, a COPS office spokesman. "There's no universal recipe that will fit every place, and in San Bernardino their mission is clear: They're decreasing crime."
In 1994, Money magazine called San Bernardino the most dangerous city in California and the sixth most dangerous in the country, after FBI crime statistics showed San Bernardino's murder rate among the top 10 for cities nationwide.
In the past eight years, however, San Bernardino, like other cities nationwide, has enjoyed a downward spiral in serious crime, according to FBI statistics.
As proof that the San Bernardino department made its intentions clear, Dean offers a March 1999 retention plan on file with the Justice Department that outlines the city's fiscal struggles.
Grant monitors visited San Bernardino just before the plan was sent. The visit was standard practice for departments awarded more than $1 million.
Before the visit from COPS officials, Dean wrote a memo to Mayor Judith Valles in February 1999 that San Bernardino should notify federal officials of its struggle to pay for 22 positions. Dean wrote that the department didn't want to jeopardize other federal dollars.
Other Inland departments reported little trouble with retaining the officers hired under the grant.
Riverside's Police Department has absorbed all 12 positions authorized under COPS money into the city's general fund, said Karen Aquino, who oversees all Riverside police grant money. But it did so at the cost of eliminating seven special-assignment positions during a time of citywide economic hardship.
Grantees are expected to pay 25 percent of the salaries of entry-level officers for three years, unless the government waives the local-match requirement. Local agencies pay the full amount of officers' salaries during the fourth year.
At about $2.5 million, the Riverside department's share of money for all COPS-related grants was about a third of the $7.7 million overall received by San Bernardino, which has about 80,000 fewer residents.
"It would have been easy for us to get more money for more positions," Riverside Assistant Police Chief Mike Smith said. "You can't buy something on credit if you can't pay for it."
Over the past four years, the Fontana Police Department has accepted about $750,000 in COPS Universal Hiring Grant money, said Pam Stewart, city senior administrative analyst, who oversees all police-related grants.
The addition of 10 officers hired under the program has allowed the department to implement new programs and increase staffing for its school police program, she said. All 10 officers were expected to be retained in Fontana's general fund, she said.
In San Bernardino, police cite fiscal woes of the 1990s, including the blow that came in 1994 when the closure of the former Norton Air Force Base resulted in the loss of about 10,000 jobs. A series of financial struggles in the city made expanding the police force a tough mission, police officials say.
Much of the trouble stems from a former special assessment district established in 1990 that had funded the salaries of several police officers. In 1997, the district became obsolete after a state proposition required that residents vote to approve such districts.
Voters defeated Measure S, which would have continued funding provided by the district. As a result, $3.6 million in police personnel costs were absorbed into the city budget from 1997 to 1999, a police report shows.
Dean, who was hired in 1996 and is under contract with the city through 2002, said police alerted officials to the fiscal problems as early as 1997.
He said the economic turmoil would have resulted in layoffs of veteran officers had the department added and retained all 22 new positions.
The Justice Department confirmed that it received at least one inquiry during the grant's life from a San Bernardino police official questioning whether the grant was being spent properly.
Dean said he wasn't surprised that one of his officers alerted federal authorities to an apparent impropriety with the funding, due to the complexities of administering several grants at once.
"It becomes mentally a real challenge to keep track of what we have," he said. "It becomes a quagmire."
David Muhlhausen, policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., said, "What happened in San Bernardino is not what the program intended, but I believe it's a common phenomenon."
As evidence of the program's shortcomings, he cited an April 1999 report published by the Justice Department at the end of a two-year inquiry by the inspector general's office.
The report outlines the results of audits of nearly 150 U.S. departments that accepted COPS funding and appeared to have fallen short of their retention goals.
Of those studied, 41 percent were found to have supplanted the money in some manner, according to the Justice Department report.
Muhlhausen said he had never before heard COPS office officials admitting to allowing supplanting.
The COPS office, with a staff of only 40 people, could not have expected to effectively oversee use of the nearly $9 billion in COPS grant money dispersed to about 30,000 agencies, Muhlhausen said.
The Justice Department's Buchanan echoed those sentiments, describing the task of making departments accountable as "a kind of triage."
"We're trying to be good stewards of the taxpayers' investment," Buchanan said from the COPS capital office. "In most cases it's not the heavy-handed Justice Department telling them what they're doing wrong."
Aides to President Bush are looking into replacing the COPS hiring philosophy with block-grant funding not necessarily set aside for community-policing efforts.
"I would like to see the Bush administration continue the (Universal Hiring Grant) funding," said Fontana's Stewart. "I haven't found that it's tied our hands. You just have to allocate the money to retain the officers ahead of time."
Community Oriented Policing
Events surrounding the San Bernardino Police Departments use of $4.1 million in federal community policing dollars.
Assessment District 994 is approved by the City Council. It provides funding for more officers and civilian positions in the Police Department.
June: Police apply for a Universal Hiring Grant through the Justice Department Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The Police Department receives funding for 42 officers.
November: California voters ratify Prop. 218, requiring cities to place special tax districts on the ballot for approval by two-thirds of voters.
November: The City Council places a special tax for police and fire protection, designated Measure S, on the ballot.
March: Measure S is defeated. As a result, $3.6 million in personnel costs associated with Assessment District 994 is absorbed into the city budget over the next two years.
The city asks that its 25 percent local match on the grant be reduced to 10 percent. The city pays its 10 percent share with block-grant funding.
The Police Department declines 20 officer positions approved as part of the grant. It begins spending the grant money to fill positions already authorized in the city budget.
March: Police inform the Justice Department they are unable to meet the grants goal of increasing the force by 22 officers.
April: The four-year grant ends after San Bernardino spends $4.1 million. The department pledges to try to increase staffing by four officers over the next three years.
Aides to President Bush discuss possibly rolling the grant into a block-funding approach where money may be spent on a number of community-improvement initiatives.
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