Billion Dollar COPS Technology Grant Program Dies

By: IPVM Team, Published on Aug 01, 2013

Grants seem to power almost every public surveillance system deployed in the past decade. Need a hundred thousand? No problem. Get a government grant. But now one of the most well-known programs is over. We talked to the U.S. Department of Justice about what happened to the COPS Technology Grant program and other grants being used to fund surveillance in its absence.

Funding Gone

The last grants for the the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) technology program have been cleared and the program is officially over, at least until a lawmaker decides it is worth funding again.

The program, provided more than $2.8 billion in grants, to more than 1,400 agencies to upgrade their technology since around 2001. “This was one of our stronger programs and it covered a broad range of requests,” says COPS spokesman Corey Ray.

The Numbers

According to data provided by the Department of Justice to IPVM, the technology program consistently received millions more dollars than any other COPS offering. At its peak in 2008, it disbursed more than $205 million to law enforcement agencies for technology. By 2011, the amount would drop to around $1 million then disappear completely. The last awards went out at the end of 2011, most of the money has been spent, and the agencies have been audited to make sure it was spent appropriately.

Funding for the program was up and down, but averaged around ~$145 million annually until 2008, according to Justice Department documents. Funding peaked in 2008, and it was downhill from there.

  • $205 million in 2008
  • $187 million in 2009
  • $170 million in 2010
  • $1.2 million in 2011
  • None for 2012-2013

Before 2000, the COPS program was most known for funding law enforcement agencies to hire new personnel and that had been the program's main focus. It also provides a grant for Native American tribes to hire officers and purchase technology and a grant for police training.

After 2000, agencies were adequately staffed, but communications and technology equipment was lacking. The money the agencies were spending on technology rapidly increased. The COPS technology grant was earmarked into legislation to help agencies catch up.

“Agencies were using it for anything from interoperability to simple equipment a police officer would have in his car,” Ray said.

As the grant gained popularity, agencies began setting their sights on more advanced technology like surveillance systems, ShotSpotter and license plate recognition, Ray says. Below is a video produced by a Maryland town on surveillance technology purchased with a COPS Technology Grant:

But the end of earmarks was the end of the program.

Funding for COPS grants to hire and train officers is ongoing, but funding for technology grants were earmarked so “that money disappeared. And no lawmakers have tried to reintroduce it or get it funded,” Ray said. “We haven’t seen that revenue come back. Law enforcement agencies are always interested in hiring new personnel, but now at the same time there is a demand for new technology. If there was an interested member of Congress, someone that saw the need or had been approached by law enforcement, if someone proposed funding for another technology program then we would maybe see this opportunity return.”

The Future of Surveillance Grants

There are other possibilities for agencies to get COPS funding for technology, however. COPS had a school safety grant program that provides funding for technology items related to securing schools. Surveillance systems in schools became a very popular item in the wake of highly publicized school shootings, he said.

Now, “for the agencies still interested in surveillance, we’d tell them to partner with schools because there was still money in our schools programs to get that.” Additionally a $150 million comprehensive school safety program has been proposed. These grants would go toward anything related to school safety.

The DOJ is cataloging and creating a database to search COPS applications by the type of technology grants were applied for and used to purchase.

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