Two years ago, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office and the DeKalb County police department described dire needs for federal aid to investigate child sex crimes.
In Fulton the case backlog was so bad that 11 cases had been open for an average of 937 days. DeKalb was “financially unable to purchase vehicles and certainly not ones that can be devoted to a unit to process specialized crimes; not even for children,” according to Department of Justice grant applications obtained by Channel 2 Action News in a records request.
In August 2011 DeKalb received nearly $500,000 and Fulton got about $350,000 from federal Community Oriented Policing Services grants.
Now those grants have expired and so has the program. Congress got rid of child-sexual-predator program grants in 2012 budget cuts. The overall COPS program is under the budgetary knife again this year, along with most government programs, as across-the-board federal cuts are due in March.
That leaves Fulton particularly in a lurch. The county hired an assistant district attorney and an investigator. In a written statement Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said unless the office can find other kinds of grant money, “we will not be able to retain the grant-funded staff.” The office is facing a $1.1 million budget shortfall.
The staff have helped ease the backlog, Howard said, disposing of six cases since March 2012.
DeKalb County Police Sgt. Dave Brown said the department used its grant money for forensic equipment and training for officers on how to deal with cyber crime and child exploitation. Since Oct. 2011 the newly created Internet Crimes Against Children division has investigated 120 cases, leading to 53 arrests.
The tale of COPS grants mirrors most government programs, as Washington’s budget crunch and continued short-term funding plans present an uncertain future.
“Everything’s at risk right now, and that’s why we have to give each area that kind of thought that we need,” said U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat. “Make no mistake about it, there is an important vital role of our federal government to be of assistance to our state and local governments and quite honestly there’s no greater area that we can be (of assistance) besides keeping our communities safe.”
Though it has some bipartisan support, the COPS program remains controversial in some corners. The conservative Heritage Foundation has called for its elimination, saying the federal government should not bear responsibility for local law enforcement.
A 2005 Department of Justice audit unearthed by USA Today found hundreds of millions of COPS funds were misspent and tens of thousands of positions unfilled. That same year a Government Accountability Office study found no connection between spending on COPS and the nation’s declining crime rate.
“COPS grants have a great name but unfortunately they often suffer from the same flaws that other grants programs do: lack of accountability, lack of transparency, creating dependency for the states and localities that accept them,” said Pete Sepp of the Washington-based National Taxpayers Union, which promotes smaller government.
The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $1 billion to hire police officers through COPS. The program’s yearly funding has since declined to $162 million.
The across-the-board cuts – born out of a 2011 deal to increase the national debt limit and put off in the year-end deal to avert the “fiscal cliff” – would cut COPS funding by $13 million.
DeKalb and Fulton sought the money in part to cushion the blow of tight local budgets.
The Fulton request included claims about Atlanta’s position as the “sex trafficking capital” of the United States that a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation showed were flimsy at best. There still were enough cases to cause a major backlog. Only 43 percent of cases in the Crimes Against Women and Children unit were resolved within a year, the nationally recommended timeframe.
Howard said “the grant has been extremely effective in increasing prosecutions and reducing the backlog of cases.” With that funding gone, he said, “the office intends to continue seeking grant opportunities from any available source.”
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