Barred agencies

May 30, 2009

By Jacob Quinn Sanders

Three Arkansas police departments are among only 27 nationwide that are ineligible for federal economic stimulus grants from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services program.

Each of the three — Austin, Arkansas City and Chidester — did something different to get on what the Department of Justice calls the “Barred Agencies” list.

“It hurts us, what can I say?” said John Staley, police chief in Austin since March. “It saddens me that we can’t get that money. It would help us out a great deal.”

Austin, a Lonoke county town of 600 people, failed to account for $119,876 in federal funds that were supposed to be used to hire new police officers. The city never responded to requests from two different sections of the Department of Justice to provide documentation that it spent the money appropriately.

Arkansas City, a Desha County town of 600, received a grant in 2002 to hire two officers. By 2008, Arkansas City could not show that it had ever hired a second officer, and auditors found that the city had misspent a portion of the grant on other things — a $25,986 mistake.

The Department of Justice acknowledges that the error in Chidester, a town of 350 just west of White Oak Lake State Park in Ouachita County, wasn’t worth a dime to the federal government. The town received a grant to hire officers. But it failed to keep the officers after the grant expired, which landed it on the list as well.

The federal stimulus package includes $1 billion in new hiring grants available to tens of thousands of police agencies across the country through the Department of Justice program. The awards are scheduled to be announced in September.

Staley’s tenure as Austin police chief follows the years of mistakes the Department of Justice documented after the original grant in 1995. He learned about it after doing a Google search on the department. Austin was placed on the list of barred agencies in 2006. It is eligible to come off Oct. 29.

The full-time police force there is made up of three people — Staley and two officers. There also are eight part-time officers, who mostly fill in when the fulltimers are on vacation or sick.

“A department this size in a county growing as fast as this one, and you don’t think we couldn’t benefit from some more resources, being able to hire another person or two?” Staley said. “Being on this list is not going to kill us, sure. But it sure doesn’t help us try to be the best department we can be.”

The list of barred agencies kept by the Community Oriented Policing Services office carries 27 names from 16 states, mostly small departments and cities like the three in Arkansas. But it also includes larger cities with long histories of high crime rates, such as Camden and Newark in New Jersey. Also on the list is the Amtrak Police Department in Pennsylvania. Illinois has the most entries on the list, with four.

Those on the list are eligible for other federal grants and other stimulus-package programs. Community Oriented Policing Services grants are attractive because they are fully funded — require no local match and have no salary cap. And the grants are not targeted to any geographic area or limited by other factors as in past years, meaning any lawenforcement agency anywhere — aside from those on the list — could have applied by the April 14 deadline.

“The last billion-dollar hiring program for new officers was 1998,” said Corey Ray, a spokesman for the program’s office in Washington. “It’s definitely a program that many cities and lawenforcement agencies have been waiting for.”

North Little Rock Police Chief Danny Bradley said his department applied for about $3 million from the program, enough to hire 20 officers. In a city of 60,000 with 182 sworn positions, the new hires would move the department back to its employment level of three years ago, before budget cuts and a citywide hiring freeze.

“Without those people, we can’t do as much as we’d like to serve our community,” Bradley said. “There are certain things we can fill in with overtime, but how much of that can you really do? These programs are necessary for us because they give us flexibility we don’t have otherwise.”

Even if he gets the full $3 million he asked for, there will be a delay before the new officers hit the streets.

“If I got the OK today to hire 20 people, it would be 14 months before they were working for our benefit once you factor in all the background work and the training,” Bradley said. “But even with the time lapse, I could use those people.”

In a much smaller city with a much smaller police force, a hiring grant means more than flexibility.

“Missing out on these grants really does have implications, especially for very small police departments,” said David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “An extra one or two people can have a tremendous impact simply on what the departments are capable of accomplishing. The other side of that is that the requirements for accepting the grants can be very hard to deliver on for a small department.”

In Chidester, Mayor Bobby Box Sr. said it was hard for the small city to fulfill an obligation to pay officers after the grant expired.

“The cop we had wouldn’t stay three years,” he said. “We hired him, paid to send him to the academy, and when he got his certification, he left us for a bigger place. We hired another one, and that one done the same thing.”

By the time the city had hired and trained a third, the grant had expired and the city couldn’t afford to keep the officer, Box said. The date of the original grant was unclear; Box said he could not recall it. Chidester is eligible to come off the list of barred agencies Dec. 14.

“These positions do not pay for themselves in a small town,” he said. “I’m paying a guy $300 or $400 a week, and he’s bringing in only $75 a week in fines and tickets, you ain’t going to be able to afford to keep that up.”

Unable to afford a full-time officer without outside grant money, Box said, the city pays for one who works intermittently and part time.

He said there should be a set of grants available to small towns that come with fewer — or no — restrictions other than to use the money to hire.

“Maybe it’s for the best that we can’t even apply for this money,” he said. “We’d probably wind up right back in the same spot all over again.”

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