Quantity and Quality

The 1994 Crime Bill and the Role of the Federal Government in Local Law Enforcement

The unprecedented social unrest following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and other recent incidents of police violence has focused the nation’s attention on reforming law enforcement policy and practice. The issue now is not whether to improve law enforcement, but how to reach that goal – and, in the context of this series of reports assessing the 1994 Crime Bill, what role the federal government should play in reform.

In an abrupt reversal of his Administration’s opposition to federal oversight of local policing, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to establish a national database on excessive use of force by police, track officers who have resigned or been fired for misconduct, and support “programs aimed at developing or improving relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.” The President and U.S. Attorney General William Barr also authorized sending federal agents to cities to address violent crime and protest activity. House Democrats and Senate Republicans have put forth their own reform proposals, including legislation that aims to reduce tension and strengthen the relationship between police and communities – particularly communities of color – by reducing police misconduct and unjustified use of force. In this respect, the current political climate resembles that surrounding passage of the 1994 Crime Bill. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was enacted in the aftermath of nationwide outrage and violent unrest in Los Angeles resulting from the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. The Crime Bill did not devote extensive attention to the issue of police misconduct and brutality, but it did seek to improve both the quantity and quality of policing in the United States. The central aim of the Crime Bill’s law enforcement sections was crime control, which made sense given public concern about escalating crime rates during the early 1990s, when the legislation was drafted. The Crime Bill sought to reduce crime in multiple ways, including through increasing community policing, the process by which officers engage community members in the coproduction of public safety. In that respect, too, the Crime Bill foreshadowed recent calls to make policing more responsive to community concerns and needs. The Crime Bill sent a strong message that the federal government would not remain passive in the face of urgent local needs to reduce crime and upgrade law enforcement. One example was the Crime Bill’s authorization of Justice Department “pattern-or-practice” investigations of law enforcement agencies “to address institutional failures that cause systemic police misconduct,” a change spurred by the riots that followed the police beating of King and acquittal of the officers involved. Likewise, President Trump’s executive order and the Senate and House legislative initiatives clearly specify a leadership role for the federal government in local law enforcement reform. Crime control is not a principal objective of today’s reform advocates, except for controlling crimes by the police. Rising violent crime rates were a prominent issue of public debate five years ago, however, when controversial incidents in Ferguson, MO, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere sparked widespread protests against police brutality. Violent crime has again increased in the nation’s cities during the current period of unrest. While firm conclusions about its impact remain elusive, assessment of the quarter-century-old Crime Bill contains promising lessons for an effective, fair, and evidence-based law enforcement response.


Nancy La Vigne and Thaddeus Johnson weigh in on the impact of the 1994 Crime Bill on law enforcement and race

Quantity and Quality

The Crime Bill and Law Enforcement

The Crime Bill set forth the goal of reorienting the emphasis of state and local law enforcement activities from reacting to crime to preventing crime. Reaction and prevention are not mutually exclusive; responses to crime can also serve a preventive purpose if they deter future offending. What remains unclear is how effective prevention efforts authorized by the Crime Bill have been in reducing crime. The Crime Bill was not the first major federal investment in state and local law enforcement. The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) was created by the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 with the goal of reducing crime and improving “the effectiveness, fairness, and coordination of law enforcement and criminal justice systems at all levels of government.” At its peak funding level in 1975, LEAA dollars accounted for 5.35% of state and local expenditures on law enforcement. Unlike the Crime Bill, however, most of the LEAA funds came in the form of block grants that allowed state and local governments to determine how the funds would be spent. The Crime Bill mandated that its financial assistance be used for specific purposes. From 1995 to 2000, the Crime Bill provided nearly $10.8 billion in appropriations for state and local law enforcement agencies. More than 80% of that funding was intended to support hiring more police officers under a program known as “Cops on the Beat.” An additional $1 billion was appropriated to augment funding for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program (JAG), the leading federal source of law enforcement dollars for states as well as local and tribal jurisdictions. The remainder of authorized funding was allocated to other priorities, including support for rural law enforcement, implementation of the “Brady Bill” gun-control regime, and grants for courts, prosecutors, and public defenders. Information regarding the Crime Bill’s impact on these initiatives is quite limited. This assessment, therefore, focuses on the legacy and lessons learned from the hiring of more police officers, the emphasis on community policing, and the enhancement of Byrne grant funding. Whether the additional billions of dollars in federal support for state and local law enforcement enabled the nation to achieve the goals of the Crime Bill, including crime reduction, has proven difficult to determine. As discussed below, several studies have analyzed the impact of hiring more police officers on crime rates, but the results paint a mixed picture, and it is not known whether crime decreases resulted simply from putting more officers on the streets or from an increased emphasis on community policing. And while JAG funding provided a heavy infusion of support for multi-jurisdictional task forces, mostly to address drug trafficking, the impact of their efforts on crime rates, the availability of illicit drugs, and substance abuse is unknown.

A significant lesson learned is the need for rigorous evaluation of outcomes, including the impact of federal support on reducing crime.

One important legacy of the Crime Bill is that both the quantity and quality of policing have the potential to reduce crime, although evidence is lacking on which may have contributed to crime reductions during the 1990s. A significant lesson learned is the need for rigorous evaluation of outcomes, including the impact of federal support on reducing crime and, now more than ever, on the effectiveness of law enforcement reforms intended to reduce misuse of force and improve police accountability. An important contribution of the Crime Bill to policing is that it allowed, with congressional approval, the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs to take a percentage of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office appropriation each year and invest it in the National Institute of Justice for policing-related research and evaluation. This represents – still today – the largest federal investment in policing research in the nation’s history.

Quantity and Quality

Community Oriented Policing Services

Authorized under Title I of the Crime Bill, the COPS Office is responsible for supporting the adoption and implementation of the practice of community policing by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. As outlined in the law, COPS’ goals were to increase the number of officers in police departments, foster problem solving and police-community interaction, encourage innovation, and develop new technologies to reduce crime and its consequences. Initiatives supported by COPS included “local programs to hire more police officers, hire and train school resource officers, purchase equipment and technological upgrades, and strengthen tribal law enforcement, homeland security, anti-gang initiatives, and training in police ethics and integrity.” Efforts to put more police officers on the street began taking shape in the years immediately following the passage of the Crime Bill. By May 12, 1999, the White House announced that it had met its goal of providing funding for the hiring of 100,000 police officers. A subsequent national evaluation estimated that the long-term impact of COPS grants would amount to, at most, 84,600 officers hired and retained by 2001, citing post-grant retention costs as an issue. COPS provided initial funding for the new positions, leaving local jurisdictions to pick up the costs over time. The 84,600 officers funded by COPS constituted 12.8% of the 659,104 sworn police personnel in the nation in 2001. While the Clinton Administration may have somewhat overstated the number of new police officers funded by COPS, sizable increases in the number of officers in state and local law enforcement agencies were observed, an outcome directly attributable to the Crime Bill.

Quantity and Quality

Mixed Evidence on Crime Impact

Violent and property crime rates in the U.S. reached peaks in 1991, three years before passage of the Crime Bill, and have declined significantly since. Evidence on whether the increase in police contributed to this crime reduction is mixed. Some studies have shown significant crime decreases resulting from the additional police officers hired with COPS grants (e.g., Cook, Kapustin, Ludwig, and Miller 2017; Evans and Owens 2007; Zhao, Schieder, and Thurman 2002). But other studies have been less supportive of a connection. A 2003 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the methods used in prior research showing that COPS grants reduced crime, saying such defects preclude “meaningful interpretation of the results.” Crime rates had begun to decrease several years before the increase in police officers funded by COPS. A subsequent GAO study, however, concluded that COPS funding had a statistically significant, albeit modest, impact on the 1990s crime decline. It seems reasonable to conclude from the existing research that COPS grants for hiring more police officers certainly did not hurt crime-fighting efforts, and likely did lead to small crime reductions. What remains unclear, however, is whether those reductions resulted from the increase in the number of police officers or from a reorientation of enforcement toward greater community engagement – the animating principle of COPS. Two questions must be answered to determine whether the modest crime reductions attributable to COPS funding resulted from changes in the quantity or the quality of policing: (1) Does community-oriented policing reduce crime? (2) Did COPS funding significantly increase the practice of community-oriented policing? One systematic review of research on community-oriented policing found that it has had limited effects on crime rates and fear of crime, although it has had positive effects on public satisfaction with the police, police legitimacy, and perceptions of disorder. The authors point out, however, that crime control did not become a primary goal of community-oriented policing until the 1990s “when the COPS Office spurred the development of programs that treated crime as a key issue.” As for the second question, it does appear that COPS funding increased the practice of community policing and not just the number of officers. This result, however, is based on the self-reports of local police officials, rather than an independent investigation of police practices. The rhetoric of community-oriented policing was extremely popular during the 1990s. A Police Foundation survey of local police departments conducted during the 1990s found that 85% of the departments said they had adopted community-oriented policing. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 64% of police departments had full-time officers engaged in community-oriented policing in 1999, compared with 34% in 1997. Whether the reality of community-oriented policing matched the rhetoric and self-reporting is difficult to tell, because agencies claiming to engage in the practice adopted a mixed bag of approaches, from community meetings to foot patrols and neighborhood watch. In any event, none of the studies of COPS funding measured the impact of community-oriented policing, in whatever form, on crime reduction. It is unknown, therefore, whether the crime decreases resulted from a change in the quantity or the quality of policing. In light of evidence that community-oriented policing—as it has commonly been defined and practiced—has little to no effect on crime, however, it is likely that the crime reductions resulted from an increase in the sheer number of officers hired with COPS grants.

Figure 1. COPS Appropriations are Reduced as US Violent Crime Rate Falls, 1985-2018

As crime rates fell, declines in COPS funding followed

Crime rates have fallen since the early 1990s, a time when rising national concern about violence helped drive bipartisan political support for passage of the Crime Bill. Congressional funding for COPS also has declined over time, as public concern about crime has waned. Figure 1 displays the three-year moving average of COPS appropriations in billions of dollars from 1995 through 2018. Also shown is the U.S. violent crime rate – a category that includes murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault – from 1985 to 2018. Between 1995 and 2000 COPS appropriations averaged $1.46 billion per year. Between 2013 and 2018, by contrast, funding averaged only $0.21 billion per year, decreasing nearly 86% between the two five-year periods. The decrease would have been even steeper but for the infusion of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Quantity and Quality

Edward Bryne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program

The second-largest Crime Bill authorization for law enforcement came under the extension of the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program (JAG), named for a New York City police officer killed in the line of duty. Under the Crime Bill, $1 billion was to be appropriated for JAG grants from the Violent Crime Reduction Trust Fund from 1995 through 2000. These funds were in addition to those authorized as deemed necessary to support JAG programs, resulting in combined appropriations of more than a half-billion dollars each year. Established in 1988 under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, JAG was designed to support state and local law enforcement efforts to combat violent and drug-related crime. The 26 purpose areas for which JAG funding could be used were specified in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. These areas included the creation and support of multi-jurisdictional task forces (MJTFs) aimed at drug trafficking, the development of criminal justice information systems, additional support for departments of corrections, and community and neighborhood crime-prevention programs. The Bureau of Justice Assistance made JAG funds available to states via two grant programs, the Discretionary Grant Program and a Formula Grant Program. Based on available data, between 1995 and 2000, $51.1 million per year was appropriated for the Discretionary Grant Program for activities directly related to crime control and violence prevention. An annual average of $492 million was provided to states under the Formula Grant Program “to improve the functioning of the criminal justice system, with emphasis on violent crime and serious offenders.”

Evidence Lacking for Multi-Jurisdictional Task Forces

Given the wide range of activities JAG funding was authorized to support, evaluating specific impacts of expenditures is challenging. The largest share of the funds, about 40%, went to support MJTFs, consistent with spending patterns before passage of the Crime Bill. No other purpose area received more than 10% of JAG funding. States varied, however, in their use of JAG funds to support MJTFs. Between 1989 and 1993, 26 states allocated between 25% and 50% of their Byrne funds to MJTFs. Wyoming led the nation in allocating 90% of its grant to task force programs. Texas and Arkansas spent more than 80% of their funds on task force programs. Connecticut and Maryland, by contrast, spent less than 10% of their total funds on MJTFs. By 1993 few new MJTFs were being created, even though, unlike other projects supported by JAG, MJTFs had no time limit for receiving grant funding. From 1995 through 2000, state and local law enforcement agencies used JAG funding mainly to sustain existing MJTFs rather than to establish new ones. Although numerous studies have examined MJTFs, few have evaluated their impacts. A 1999 evaluation administered surveys to 757 JAG-funded MJTFs.* The study found that 59% had formed since 1988, when the JAG program was authorized by Congress, and that those task forces had an average of eight agencies as members. It also found that while nearly all (97%) MJTFs were created to address drug crimes, a substantial number (25%) were formed to combat violent crime. While most MJTFs gathered operational data on arrests and drug and weapon seizures, the evaluation showed that very few collected data that could be used to evaluate their impact on crime rates, the availability of illicit drugs in communities, the prevalence of substance abuse, or other outcomes. The study concluded that “almost no attention has been given to the effects of MJTFs on regional and local environments.” The lack of such assessment is disappointing given that the JAG program encourages “evidence-based practices” and “data analysis to make data-driven decisions.” In FY2016, the most recent year for which data were available, “more than 60 percent of JAG-funded programs reported conducting analysis,” the BJA reported. What is unclear is the degree to which these analyses were directed to evaluating the impact of JAG funding on crime rates or other outcomes. A comprehensive empirical assessment of the crime-reduction effects of JAG expenditures is long overdue. Grants issued under the JAG program remain the major source of federal dollars for state and local law enforcement agencies. Such funding has been on the decline, however, and federal support now accounts for only a tiny proportion of overall state and local law enforcement spending. According to the Congressional Research Service, in FY2005 the congressional appropriation for JAG was $529 million after “set-asides,” which are funds for other purposes included in the “top line” JAG appropriations. JAG funding in FY2019 was $330 million after set-asides. The average annual JAG appropriations declined by approximately 20% between 2005 and 2011 ($426 million) and between 2012 and 2019 ($341 million). In recent years, set-asides have accounted for an increasing share of JAG funding, amounting to 22% of the top-line JAG appropriation in 2019. In FY2017 states and local governments spent $115 billion on law enforcement and another $79 billion on corrections. According to the Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center, “Nearly all spending was funded by state and local governments because federal grants account for a very small share of police and corrections expenditures.” For example, the $335 million in JAG funds amounted to approximately 0.3% of state and local expenditures for law enforcement in FY2017.

Carrots and Sticks

Federal Oversight of Local Policing Practices

Following the widely viewed video of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers and the officers’ acquittal on state criminal charges in 1992, the Crime Bill authorized the Justice Department to initiate and, if necessary, litigate pattern-or-practice investigations of law enforcement agencies.

Between 1994 and 2017, the Department’s Civil Rights Division opened 69 formal investigations and entered into 40 reform agreements with law enforcement agencies across the country. During the Obama Administration, the Justice Department responded to public concern about police misconduct by accelerating pattern-or-practice investigations. After Ferguson, President Obama also appointed the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued recommendations to strengthen the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve and improve officer training and accountability to reduce police misconduct. The Task Force and Obama White House charged the COPS Office as the Department of Justice unit responsible for spearheading implementation of the Task Force recommendations. Those recommendations, some of which have been adopted by law enforcement agencies around the country, are receiving renewed attention in the wake of widespread protests sparked by George Floyd’s videotaped death beneath the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin.

Figure 2. Civil Rights Division's Police Reform Agreements

Pattern-or-practice investigations and court orders effectively ended under the Trump Administration, but federal engagement with local law enforcement continues. In 2017 the Justice Department established the National Public Safety Partnership (PSP). Building on a similar program begun under the Obama Administration, PSP provides training and technical assistance to local jurisdictions to reduce violent crime and foster community engagement. As a condition of federal assistance, PSP requires that local agencies evaluate the impact of new strategies on violent crime. COPS has continued to support community policing initiatives in law enforcement agencies, although direct engagement with local agencies in “collaborative reform” partnerships has been curtailed in recent years. Collaborative reform, begun under the Obama Administration, involved agreements between COPS and local police agencies to institute organizational changes to improve trust between police and the communities they serve. The program was expressly intended as an alternative to pattern-or-practice consent decrees that direct police departments to institute reforms, under court monitoring, in lieu of litigation. In 2017, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced major changes to the program, arguing that collaborative reform amounted to “federal overreach.” Explaining the shift, Sessions said: “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies." Despite Sessions’ concerns and subsequent rollbacks, the federal government continues to partner with state and local agencies in addressing the criminal justice response to crime. The partnership has recently assumed a form not anticipated in the Crime Bill – or welcomed by some local officials. Operation Legend, named after four-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was killed in Kansas City, MO, sends federal agents to cities to assist local law enforcement in responding to violent crime. The extent to which this effort helps reduce violent crime—or exacerbates tensions between law enforcement and communities—remains to be seen.


The Future of the Federal Role in Law Enforcement

At the Crime Bill signing ceremony in 1994, President Bill Clinton declared that, “Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets,” a sentiment shared by large numbers of Americans who, for a decade, had identified crime as the country’s most important problem. It was not surprising, then, that the most sweeping criminal justice law in U.S. history would contain funding for the hiring of an impressive number of police officers – 100,000 of them, President Clinton promised – and would call for a law enforcement shift toward greater crime prevention and community engagement. A quarter-century has passed, but evaluating the Crime Bill’s effects on crime rates and the effectiveness of law enforcement remains a challenge. While spending authorized by the law can be credited for an increase in crime prevention initiatives, it is unclear whether those efforts reduced crime. And although police agencies experienced expansions in their forces because of the Crime Bill, studies differ on how much those extra officers helped drive down crime rates. Nor is it known whether any crime reductions resulted from changes in the quantity or the quality of policing. Also unknown is whether multi-jurisdictional task forces – the recipients of the second-largest amount of federal law enforcement funding, after the COPS program – have influenced narcotics trafficking, the level of drug use in communities, or other outcomes. A failure to perform rigorous evaluations has left those critical questions unanswered. Despite this murky legacy, the Crime Bill did reestablish and expand the relationship, initiated by the LEAA in the 1970s, between the federal government and state and local jurisdictions on law enforcement. It also laid the foundation for today’s emphasis on evidence-based criminal justice policy, especially policing. The Crime Bill, along with William Bratton’s leadership of the New York Police Department and then-emerging research on targeted “hot spot” policing, fundamentally altered the then-prevailing view that the police had little influence over crime. The strategies differed – Bratton focused on policing minor crimes and disorder, while hot-spot researchers called for enhanced patrols where serious crimes are concentrated. But both emphasized that police could make a demonstrable difference in crime rates that could and should be verified by empirical evidence on outcomes, a perspective that influenced and remains a legacy of the Crime Bill. That emphasis should encompass all federal criminal justice expenditures, which should be rigorously evaluated to determine whether they meet their intended objectives, whether they have unforeseen effects on criminal justice and public safety, and how they affect racial, social, and economic equity. The Crime Bill sent billions of dollars in federal support to law enforcement agencies in cities and towns across the country and, unlike the LEAA, specified how that money would be spent. That partnership has shapeshifted over the ensuing decades, but it continues today. Law enforcement in the United States remains the primary responsibility of state and local governments. By alerting local jurisdictions of best practices elsewhere, directing federal funds to specific purposes and activities, and requiring evaluation of their outcomes, the federal partnership strengthens state and local law enforcement in this country. Now the federal government must join with local and state policymakers to remedy the injustices in law enforcement that have been allowed to persist for far too long. George Floyd’s killing, and the largest and most diverse protests against police violence our nation has ever seen, make the need for reform all the more urgent.

Richard Rosenfeld is the Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. His research focuses on crime trends and crime control policy. Professor Rosenfeld is a Fellow and former President of the American Society of Criminology.

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