By John R. Kapinos, PFI Past President
Those of us with plenty of time in the police profession are familiar with the role and value of Federal Government grant programs, and how they have affected the delivery of police service in the United States for decades. From the LEAA programs in the 1970s, which created many of the professional research entities and emphasized organizational planning and officer education, through the COPS grants in the 1990s, which added thousands of police officers to the streets and promoted community policing efforts, these programs have defined the direction of American policing. In the years after 9/11, UASI grants from the Department of Homeland Security allowed police agencies to stockpile emergency response equipment and facilitated interoperability.
Given the current state of Federal spending, and the institutional dysfunction that seems to characterize Uncle Sam these days, it is worth wondering about the future of U.S. Government grants to support the policing profession. Certainly, we have all seen firsthand how many of the Federal agencies have been struggling: grants are fewer and harder to come by, and conferences are much less lavish than in the past. Where is this trend going? Is the plug being pulled on the big ATM in Washington?
I think that it is worth noting that in the past several years, grant solicitations have increasingly focused on funding for research initiatives. The phrase “evidence-based practices” has come into common usage. With very little cash to give out, as compared to better times, funding agencies are looking for ways to actually determine what approaches to policing work effectively in the real world. And if they do work, how can they be replicated, so that truly effective police practices can be spread throughout the profession.
Just as the recent recession has caused everyone to curtail lavish spending and get back to basics, so has intelligent discernment been forced on the police profession. We can’t spend money (local, state or Federal dollars) on cool police toys as in the past – we need to find out what works and throw our weight behind those efforts. I would advise police executives who wish to thrive in this environment to do two things; build your own organizational capacity for planning and research, and cultivate partnerships with universities and professional research organizations. That seems to be the ticket to the government grant dollars in the immediate future.
I will posit that the grants mechanism will likely disappear within a decade or so. Perhaps the current emphasis is a bit of a last-gasp effort for the funding agencies to at least figure out what does work while they still have any money to give. Grants have been very important to policing in general for decades. They have served to keep certain initiatives – and even some entire police departments – afloat, long after they may have expired on their own. They have also served as somewhat of a standardizing mechanism for practices throughout the profession. Once the Federal grant machine falls away, I wonder what – if anything- will serve that function.
Regardless of the presence or lack of grant funding, cooperative research work with universities and other institutions is an enormous benefit to policing, and should be cultivated as an ideal business practice. The ability to test programs and initiatives and to learn what actually works – and perhaps why – will pay huge dividends moving forward. More on this topic will follow in a future post.