The federal government has fundamentally transformed state and local law enforcement agencies into a national police force, using funding to incentivize local cops to focus on federal law enforcement priorities.
The Department of Homeland Security other federal agencies funnel billions of dollars to local police departments through grant programs and equipment transfers. Of course, the feds tie virtually all of the money to specific enforcement objectives, whether it be the war on drugs, traffic safety, or anti-terrorism. The availability of so much cash and equipment skews law enforcement priorities to those the feds want to focus on, and can pull resources away from local policing priorities.
According to the FBI, the national clearance rate for homicide today stands at just over 64 percent. Fifty years ago, it was more than 90 percent. While correlation does not equal causation, many analysts believe the shift in law enforcement priorities may factor into the increasing stack of unsolved murders. With so many resources pouring into the drug war and the war on terror, little remains for more traditional policing objectives.
Tennessee provides with an example the reveals just how much federal money pours into state and local law enforcement agencies. Last month, the Tennessee Highway Safety Office handed out $19 million in grants across the state. According to the Jefferson City Standard Banner, these highway safety grants announced included $30,000 to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, $20,000 to the Jefferson City Police Department, $15,000 to Dandridge Police Department, $5,000 to the White Pine Police Department, and $5,000 to the Baneberry Police Department. Officials say there were 400 approved grant applications across the Volunteer State.
The Tennessee Highway Safety Office administers this cash cow. But where did the money come from? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to the paper, “applicants who meet the required data-driven criteria and highway safety standards are awarded grant funds to support THSO’s mission to reduce traffic crashes, injuries and fatalities.” You can bet your bottom dollar the feds dictate those THSO’s mission and data-drive criteria through the funding strings.
Multiplied across all 50 states, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administers over $500 million in grant programs annually, according to its website. In July 2012, Congress passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). The NHTSA program provides $1.3 billion for highway safety grants programs and requires “that all States have a performance-based highway safety program designed to reduce traffic crashes and the resulting deaths, injuries, and property damage.”
In other words, states get the cash as long as they adopt federal priorities as their own.
The federal government was never intended to involve itself in state and local policing, and it has no constitutional authority to do so. But the feds want to fight a war on drugs. They want to enforce their highway safety standards. They want to run “homeland security.” Because it remains constitutionally difficult for the feds to directly order local cops around, they utilize the “soft” control of funding.
This doesn’t just come in the form of cash. The Department of Defense 1033 program and other federal schemes allow state and local cops to procure billions of dollars worth of surplus military gear. The main function of local police militarization revolves around the unconstitutional “war on drugs.” After all, wars require soldiers, and the federal government doesn’t have the manpower to fight alone. The feds need state and local police to serve as foot-soldiers in their drug war. Militarization, combined with asset forfeiture cash, incentivizes the necessary cooperation.
All of this cash and equipment have blurred the lines between local and federal policing almost to oblivion. Police departments participate in countless multi-agency taskforces. Local police chiefs often reference their “federal partners.” The federal government has become so interwoven into local and state law enforcement agencies to the point that generally no distinction exists.
The only way to untangle the federal government from your local police department is to cut the funding strings. That will never happen from the top down. D.C. will keep dangling the carrot. Change has to happen at the local level. It requires intense grassroots activism to push city councils and state legislatures to forgo the federal cash and set their own law enforcement priorities. Police department administrators will howl in protest. And cutting funding is never an easy message to sell. But keep in mind that once free from the mandates attached to the funding, police can focus on violent crime and property crimes instead of spending all of their time and energy doing the federal government’s bidding.