Just weeks after Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar unveiled a new criminal justice reform platform, she is getting ready to introduce a police-backed measure that would reauthorize part of the infamous 1994 crime law.
Now a presidential candidate, Klobuchar has received her fair share of flack for her history as an aggressive prosecutor. She has tried to counter that in part by rolling out a plan that would allow the release of incarcerated people through the creation of a clemency advisory board and the installation of a presidential adviser to advocate for reform from within the White House.
The senator, however, is working on a measure endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations, and opposed by key reform groups. Klobuchar’s bill, which she’s working on with Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, would authorize $400 million a year for a hiring program under the Community Oriented Policing Services office, or COPS, which encourages community policing by providing grants to “community policing professionals.” That’s a $247 million increase over the last congressional authorization for the hiring program in February, which allocated $153 million.
Advocating for additional funding for police is not necessarily in conflict, by itself, with the end goals of reform, said Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at New York University’s Marron School of Urban Management. Indeed, if a Democratic president were one-day intent on genuine police reform, the carrot of federal money could be a major policy lever to pull. The question is how it’s deployed and monitored, and to what end.
“There’s no contradiction between increasing police presence — which poor, high-crime neighborhoods desperately need — and criminal justice reform,” Kleiman wrote in an email to The Intercept. He noted that funding for the COPS program could provide the resources for law enforcement to make changes that would positively impact communities. “The original COPS strategy was to leverage federal money to push police departments toward community policing. It had some success. No reason to think the same strategy wouldn’t work to push departments toward other reforms.”
The COPS program was originally authorized as part of the 1994 crime bill, which is now regarded as a major factor in driving up the massive incarcerated population in the U.S. It was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton; the law was a hallmark of Joe Biden’s tenure as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but haunted both Biden and Hillary Clinton in their bids for the White House. The measure introduced tougher sentencing — including the well-known “three strikes” rule that doled out lifetime prison sentences for people who committed a violent felony and already had two or more convictions — appropriated tens of billions of dollars to add more law enforcement officers to the streets, and directed $9.7 billion to build new prisons, among other things.
Proponents of the COPS program say that it’s been responsible for a reduction in crime, but studies show that it’s “had little to or no effect on crime.”
In a 2020 budget request, the Trump administration said it planned to allocate $29.2 billion to the Department of Justice, an umbrella figure that includes money for the COPS program. The program’s critics reviewed the budget and sent a letter in April to the House Appropriations Committee recommending suspension of the COPS Hiring Program until the House Judiciary Committee holds an oversight hearing on it. “Created with the goal of hiring 100,000 local police officers, the COPS program has outlived its purpose and contributes to the epidemic of mass incarceration that has devastated communities across the nation,” the letter from the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance, the NAACP, and the Sentencing Project reads.
“Since its inception, the COPS program has [used] billions of dollars for a purpose that many argue has fueled mass incarceration in the states. And all too often, the COPS Hiring Program supports unconstitutional policing practices and subsidizes failed police departments,” the letter continues. From 2009 to 2013, “the COPS Office awarded more than $10.2 million in grants to the Baltimore Police Department without ensuring that the police department used these funds in compliance with nondiscrimination laws, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During that period, the Civil Rights Division found that the Baltimore police were engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law including, unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; constantly using excessive force; and intentionally discriminating against African-Americans.”
For advocates working to reform sentencing and drug policy, Klobuchar’s enthusiasm for the legislation at a time when she’s pushing a progressive platform makes little sense. “The COPS program is the cornerstone of the repudiated 1994 crime bill,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement to The Intercept. “For legislators to reauthorize such a harmful program, without even the slightest debate on the program’s many flaws, demonstrates a misunderstanding of what this country needs to do to move away from the failed war on drugs.”
The fact that the bill would provide a blanket reauthorization for the program for five years poses another issue, Kanya Bennett, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Intercept. “Questions have been raised around sort of the function, and the utility,” she said, referencing a 2016 Congressional Research Service report that “does flag this question about the need for cops during a period where there are historically low crime rates.” That narrative “is not the one you’re hearing from this administration,” she said, “but when you actually look at the numbers, that is a legitimate question to ask. Why are we investing so much money in law enforcement when crime rates are historically low?”
Another 2013 Government Accountability Office report talks about the need for the COPS program to have a better monitoring and application progress. “So again, to the point around oversight, has the Congress attempted to respond to any of these questions that have been found by our watchdog entities there in the federal government?” Bennett said.
“Congress’s desire to appease law enforcement every May at the expense of communities that have been impacted by failed policing practices is not acceptable,” she said. As for Klobuchar’s role in the bill, she continued, “anyone who touts themselves as a criminal justice reformer cannot offer this legislation and be consistent with that agenda they’re putting forward. Especially with there not being any evidence that these programs are working.”
Klobuchar was planning to introduce the bill for a vote this week, to coincide with National Police Week, an annual nationwide tribute to law enforcement, according to Bennett, who was briefed on it by someone involved in the negotiations. The timing was confirmed by another source close to the process who requested anonymity given their work in the space. The aim had been to have the measure voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which she sits.
The timeline, however, is now in flux. Last week, Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Lindsey Graham told The Intercept that he thought it was on the schedule for that week, but wasn’t totally sure. The Intercept contacted Klobuchar’s office for comment last week, to which they replied that there were no plans to move the bill that week. Afterward, it became apparent that the bill was no longer up for consideration during National Police Week, according to a source close to the process.
Klobuchar’s office, the source said, did not reach out to stakeholders for feedback, as is customary on Capitol Hill: “To try and introduce the bill and take it straight to a committee vote, without even talking to key criminal justice and policing reform groups is malpractice, and an indication that Klobuchar wanted to ram this through during police week and look good for law enforcement without progressives noticing. They should know better.”
Bennett said the conversation around reintroducing the COPS bill was “somewhat surprising” given that two other bills listed for markup focused on bulletproof vests and mental health resources for law enforcement. “So to add this COPS reauthorization, which is fairly controversial for both sides — now it’s true that it has garnered bipartisan support in the past, but it has also garnered bipartisan criticism as well,” she explained. “To put this on the calendar when there has been no oversight over the COPS hiring program and its administration in recent years is highly problematic.”
The reauthorization bill appears to have support on the Judiciary Committee.
Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Mazie Hirono, who are both on the Judiciary Committee, said they hadn’t had a chance to review the bill but would likely support it. “Generally, I’m pretty supportive,” Blumenthal said. “I haven’t reviewed it in detail.”
“I’m generally supportive of more local law enforcement,” Hirono told The Intercept, “and I think police can become much closer to the communities in which they are serving.”
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the second-ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, said he wasn’t familiar with the reauthorization bill. “Well, if you’re talking about ‘do I like the existing COPS bill,’ the answer is yes. But I’m not up to date on the reauthorization,” he told The Intercept.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said she didn’t know what the bill was. “Well, I have to take a look at it, I don’t know,” she said.
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said last week that she has not had a chance to look at it. “Why don’t you get back with me next week when I’ve had an opportunity to read it?” she said.
Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy also said he hadn’t yet looked at the bill. “I’m going to look at it this weekend,” he told The Intercept.