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The trouble with COPS

August 12, 2003

President Bill Clinton bragged that federal COPS grants had put 100,000 new police officers on the streets. But some West Virginia municipalities are discovering that what seemed like a gold mine really hasn't panned out. Elected officials need new incentives to avoid the turnover that has hurt the program.

According to the Associated Press, since the COPS program was created in 1994, 162 grants worth $38 million have resulted in the hiring of 678 full- and part-time police officers for West Virginia towns.

Like other federal programs, COPS grants pay 75 percent of the new officer's salary during the first year, then a lesser percentage for the next two. By the fourth year, the municipality must fund the entire paycheck.

But some towns complain that after training the officers for three years, the officers often leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. In Paw Paw, a $41,166 grant for one officer was allowed to expire after officials said they were unable to keep officers in town.

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Instead, Paw Paw is now patrolled by the Morgan County Sheriff's Department. Other municipalities across the state are doing the same, with some officials debating whether that spreads those departments' deputies too thin to do a good job.

One solution used by some towns in West Virginia and nearby Maryland is the resident deputy program. For less than they would pay for their own departments, the towns contract with the local sheriff's department to handle patrols and other town-related police functions.

The trade-off for this lower-cost option is that if there's an emergency elsewhere, the deputy can be called out of town to assist.

But for towns that need their own police forces, there must be some incentives for officers to stay once they're trained..

We suggest that these towns consider offering their new hires below-market-rate rentals or a grant toward the purchase of a house that would have to be repaid if the officer departs before the grant expires.

If the towns want experienced law enforcement personnel, one way or another they've got find a way to pay for them.

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