By ELIZABETH BEWLEY, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Lebanon Police Chief Scott Bowen says his department would be "in dire straits" without the nearly $1.8 million it has received through the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program.
The program has allowed Lebanon to hire or keep 15 officers since 1995. That accounts for more than one-fifth of the city's 72-member police force.
But funding cuts mean COPS grants won't be easy to come by this year. And experts say the program, deemed wasteful by conservative critics, may soon be gone for good -- a possibility that leaves Bowen and other Tennessee police chiefs fearing a rise in crime.
Congress cut COPS funding by 66 percent in 2012, to $200 million from $586 million.
With a smaller budget, COPS will no longer provide grants to install security equipment in schools or to prosecute sexual predators who target children, according to Corey Ray, spokesman for the program at the Justice Department.
The bulk of COPS money this year -- between $100 million and $140 million -- will go toward hiring new police officers, Ray said. That's a steep reduction from last year's $238 million hiring fund.
Officials haven't yet determined which local agencies will get grants this year, Ray said, but COPS will be a "smaller program geared toward specific projects."
Tennessee law enforcement agencies have received nearly $220 million in COPS grants since 1994, when Congress created the program in an effort to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets.
In cities like Lebanon, where a nearly $2 million budget gap threatened police jobs in 2010, officials say the grants are crucial.
The city's police department received $878,696 in 2010 to pay salaries and benefits for four police officers. Without the grant, those officers might have been laid off to help bridge the budget gap, said Bowen.
The COPS program will fund the positions for three years. The city must fund them for a fourth under program rules.
"There's no doubt in my mind that it's made our city a safer place," Bowen said.
Bowen has worked with local legislators and the National Association of Chiefs of Police to prevent the program's elimination, which he said would be "devastating."
The Metro Nashville Police Department has received $25.5 million through the program since 1995, allowing it to add 407 officers.
The department received an $8.7 million chunk of the $1 billion reserved for COPS in the 2009 economic stimulus package.
COPS will pay the salaries and benefits of Nashville's 50 new officers until October. Metro Police spokeswoman Kris Mumford said the department plans to keep the officers permanently.
"Without a doubt the federal grants have enhanced Nashville's safety through the years," she said. "But we try not to depend on them."
Metro Police applied for but didn't receive COPS funding in 2011, Mumford said.
Conservatives targeted COPS for possible elimination last year, listing it among programs that could be scaled back or killed to save $100 billion in the fiscal 2011 budget.
It survived that attempt but is still at risk as Congress sharpens its focus on cutting spending.
Not all conservative Republicans oppose the program.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood and 69 other House Republicans voted with Democrats last February to restore COPS funding after the Republican budget plan proposed eliminating it.
Critics like David Muhlhausen of the conservative Heritage Foundation say the Founding Fathers never wanted Congress to get involved in local law enforcement -- a philosophical argument embraced by many tea party-backed freshmen.
"It's the responsibility of state and local governments to fund police officers," Muhlhausen said. "Eventually the program's going to go out of business because the federal government cannot afford to be everything to everybody."
Muhlhausen said his research has shown that COPS has had little or no effect on crime rates.
Clarksville Police Chief Al Rivers Ansley disagrees.
Increasing the size of local police forces through the program "definitely makes a difference in the crime rate," he said.
His department received nearly $1.9 million in COPS grants in 2010, allowing him to hire 12 new officers. Since 1995, Clarksville has received $5.1 million to hire 56 officers.
Ansley said Clarksville's ratio of police officers to residents was well below the national and Southeastern averages when he became chief in 2007. The grants have helped raise the number of officers from 234 to 271 in the last four years, he said.
"You can look at other cities across the country and see cities that are losing public servants and law enforcement, and those cities suffer from higher crime rates," he said.
A Justice Department report published in October said layoffs and furloughs at local law enforcement agencies could harm public safety.
More than a third of the local law enforcement agencies that applied for COPS grants last year reported budget cuts of more than 5 percent, the report said. It predicted that some 12,000 police officers would be laid off by the end of 2011.
Bowen, the police chief in Lebanon, says funding cuts couldn't come at a worse time.
"You have more people out of work who are economically strained, which means they're out committing more crimes," he said.
While crime statistics in Lebanon appear to have improved in 2011, he said, they're still higher than before the recession.
"The longer this economic strain goes on, the more you will need more officers out there," he said.
Contributing: Raju Chebium, Gannett Washington Bureau
Top Tennessee agencies receiving COPS funds, 1995-2011:
-- Memphis Police Department: $30.9 million
-- Metropolitan Nashville Police Department: $26.6 million
-- City of Chattanooga: $15.9 million
-- City of Knoxville: $14.7 million
-- Knox County Sheriff's Department: $6.9 million
-- Tennessee Bureau of Investigation: $6.9 million
-- Jackson Police Department: $6.7 million
-- City of Clarksville: $5.1 million
-- Rutherford County Sheriff's Department: $4.6 million
-- Blount County Sheriff's Department: $4.2 million
Source: U.S. Justice Department