May 12
May 12, 2014

The Lasting Legacy of the COPS Program


I was one of many mayors across the country who worked closely with the Clinton Administration and the Congress – through the U.S. Conference of Mayors – to enact the 1994 Crime Bill and what for us has been its most important provision, the COPS Program.  I was honored to be on the South Lawn of the White House when President Clinton signed this legislation. 

At that time, mayors were focused on the immediate problems of crime and violence in our cities and how the bill could help us.  It’s only in retrospect that we can appreciate the enormous long-term impact that the COPS Program has had on crime and on the way we fight crime in our cities.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of President Clinton’s announcement that the program had funded the 100,000 additional officers it had promised.  But the COPS Program went well beyond providing us with these badly needed additional police officers, as important as that was: It fundamentally changed policing in America’s cities by instituting community policing practices in our departments. 

In our cities today, mayors and police chiefs understand and appreciate the police-community partnership forged by community policing – how it works to prevent crime and reduce the atmosphere of fear which crime creates, how it earns the trust of the community and involves residents in achieving their own safety, and how it enables police officers to better understand and address both the needs of the community and the factors that contribute to crime.

Here’s what the COPS Program has achieved, by the numbers, since 1994:

  • It has invested nearly $14 billion to add community policing officers to the nation’s streets, enhance crime fighting technology, support crime prevention initiatives, and provide training and technical assistance to help advance community policing.
  • It has funded approximately 125,000 additional officers in more than 13,000 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, in jurisdictions large and small.
  • Nearly 700,000 law enforcement personnel, community members, and government leaders have been trained through COPS Program-funded training organizations.
  • In a 2005 report, the Government Accountability Office found that “as a demonstration of whether a federal program can affect crime through hiring officers and changing policing practices, the evidence indicates that COPS contributed to declines in crime above the levels of declines that would have been expected without it.”

In Charleston, the benefits to our community from COPS have been many and far reaching.  The additional officers have provided safety and security to neighborhoods and the community that have enhanced the trust and relationships forged between officers and citizens.

With the additional staffing provided through the COPS Program, Charleston police have created Community Action Teams that are embedded in the community.  The teams create personal interaction between police officers and citizens, especially children, and have institutionalized the COPS philosophy of problem-solving and trust-building.  The concept has allowed the Department to move beyond law enforcement and for officers to become community partners who prevent negative behaviors rather than respond to bad outcomes.  Officers assigned to the CAT teams work the same neighborhoods on a daily basis and become important parts of the overall fabric of the community.  By humanizing officer-community relationships, we have improved cooperation, resolved chronic issues, and empowered community members to become more engaged.

Through the COPS program we were also able to hire additional crime prevention officers and assign them to patrol teams, making these teams better able to identify, analyze, and solve problems that arise.  Because of our proactive efforts and the constant communication that is maintained, we are able to quickly alert and engage community members, when needed, to serve as extra eyes and ears.  And by having additional crime prevention officers on staff, we can quickly surge our resources to areas being affected by negative incidents.  This reinforces our commitment to the community: We care about their problems and will work quickly and deliberately to solve them.

That COPS is working in Charleston can be seen in a range of positive results:  Crime has decreased, citizen cooperation and engagement has increased, and our community embraces and supports its Police Department more than ever before.  Officers see themselves differently as well:  They recognize that they can add value to neighborhoods and communities through their caring, understanding, and commitment.  Their positive impact is reflected in compliments and in letters received concerning actions of officers that have nothing to do with law enforcement – and everything to do with being caring and compassionate.  We are experiencing more community engagement in all areas of the Department, and this has enhanced community understanding which, in turn, creates good will and trust.

Overall, the 30 officers hired through COPS programs in the past decade have allowed the Charleston Police Department to transform itself from a good police department that offered direct services to its community to a great police department that prides itself on being an integral part of the community.

Because of the COPS program, we have embraced an understanding that we must balance our crime fighting strengths and skills to address law enforcement with the need to build and nurture community support.  As a result, we are a better Department and a better and significantly safer City: In the last eight years, violent crime has decreased by 70 percent.