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A police officer in Washington, D.C. days before the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump.
Analysis

Trump Budget Draft Targets Cops, Crime Victims

Also civil rights enforcement and legal aid for the poor.

Today the Hill reported that the Trump team hopes to slash federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years. In a proposed federal budget prepared by the president elect’s transition team, the Department of Justice and related agencies comes in for almost $1.3 billion in cuts in the first fiscal year alone. This represents less than 1 percent of the department’s $29 billion annual budget, but the targets are telling. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and Violence Against Women grants would be eliminated altogether, as would the autonomous Legal Services Corporation. Funding would be reduced for the department’s Civil Rights and Environment and Natural Resources divisions. The programs and departments slated for the chopping block mirror closely (but not precisely) those in the Blueprint for Balance, a proposed federal budget that the conservative Heritage Foundation published last year.

That the department’s Civil Rights Division would face cuts is hardly a shock. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump’s nominee to head Justice, has expressed skepticism or outright hostility towards two of the division’s signature tasks: policing the police and prosecuting hate crimes. But some of the other cuts are surprising. Victims’ rights groups thought they had identified a champion in Sessions, and yet the Violence Against Women grants slated for elimination go largely to support victims of domestic violence. Both Sessions and Trump have been outspoken defenders of the nation’s police, yet the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, is a primary source of funding for officers’ salaries and equipment in departments nationwide.

"I would be surprised if the Trump administration would support all of this since Donald Trump has expressed support for law enforcement officers and so many of these programs provide strong support for police on the street and serve victims of violent crime," said Laurie O. Robinson, who, as assistant attorney general under President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, oversaw many of the funding streams that the Heritage Foundation wants to cut. At the same time, the move is in keeping with conservative ideology, which has long held that “state and local government should support criminal justice funding, and the federal government should have more of a limited role," Robinson said.

Whether Congress will pass such a bare-bones budget remains to be seen. A similar budget failed resoundingly in 2015, even with Republicans in control of the House, largely due to pushback from moderate Republicans. — Beth Schwartzapfel

Grants for local police

When crime was high and the “War on Drugs” was hot, Clinton pushed Congress to put 100,000 police on the streets of American cities. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services began to dole out grants not only for new hires but for equipment and training programs, too. The COPS Office now boasts on its website that it has spent more than $14 billion since inception “to help advance community policing.”

The office’s spending plans for 2017 set forth by the Obama administration include: up to $137 million for three-year salary grants for rookie cops, about $8 million for police departments who sign up for voluntary federal oversight, and around $7 million for state law enforcement agencies to hunt down methamphetamine dealers.

The Heritage Foundation wasn’t impressed by the COPS legacy, or its ambitions. “The COPS program has an extensive track record of poor performance and should be eliminated. COPS grants also unnecessarily fund functions that are the responsibility of state and local governments,” wrote the think tank.

A COPS spokeswoman referred questions to the agency’s budget officials, who are in talks with the Trump administration’s transition team. Neither those officials nor the Heritage Foundation responded to requests for comments. Trump has consistently billed himself as being pro-police, and during his presidential campaign he secured the endorsement of the nation’s largest police union.

Proposed plans to close the COPS office, however, were never discussed with union officials, said James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.

“We are confident that once Mr. Trump hears about the good work that the COPS office does, we will be able to persuade him from this path,” Pasco said.

The office has collected its share of critics over the years. USA TODAY detailed in 2005 how local police departments had wrongly used money for new hires to raise salaries and to fill budget gaps. Also, policing experts have complained that federal hiring grants cover only an officer’s first few years on the force. NYU Law Professor Barry Friedman, who directs the school’s Policing Project, wasn’t shocked by the Heritage Foundation’s proposal. “The country really needs a task force to examine the federal role in local law enforcement,” Friedman said. “Federal programs have developed in haphazard ways over the years by trying to navigate between federal interests and state authority.” — Simone Weichselbaum

Civil rights

The Heritage Foundation blueprint recommends reducing the budget of the Civil Rights Division by 33 percent, or $58 million from the $175 million requested for the current fiscal year. The blueprint accused the division of filing “abusive lawsuits intended to enforce progressive social ideology,” a view held by many conservatives.

The division, created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, is responsible for enforcing federal statutes that relate to discrimination. Its tools are lawsuits. Recently, the division’s lawyers have sued banks, school districts, private employers and counties over discrimination on matters ranging from employment to housing loans to voter access. The range is broad, and the head of the division has a great deal of discretion. In the realm of criminal justice, the division has filed statements in court supporting New York juveniles contesting their placement in solitary confinement, as well as Florida prisoners with disabilities arguing that the state’s prison agency has discriminated against them.

“Significant cuts to the Civil Rights Division would confirm the hostility of the Trump administration to minorities, women and people with disabilities,” said William Yeomans, a lawyer formerly with the division.

Under Obama, the division received particular attention for investigations into law enforcement agencies accused of discrimination. This month, the division released a scathing report on policing in Chicago and entered into a consent decree — a court agreement stipulating various changes in policy — with Baltimore police.

Regardless of how much funding the division receives, former officials expect priorities to shift dramatically. Under Obama, the department entered 12 consent decrees with various law enforcement agencies; under Bush, the department entered three. Sessions has echoed the concerns of numerous police and conservatives, calling consent decrees “an end run around the democratic process.” — Maurice Chammah

Legal aid for the poor

The Legal Services Corporation is a non-profit agency, funded annually by Congress and operating independently from the DOJ, that provides grants to help low-income people with their civil, not criminal, legal problems. Each year, LSC-funded organizations assist nearly 2 million Americans — about 70 percent of whom are women — defending them in domestic violence and family-custody cases, eviction and foreclosure proceedings, disputes with unscrupulous lenders, attempts to obtain veterans’ benefits, and more. The corporation, which is headed by a bipartisan panel appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, also offers dial-in help lines and downloadable court forms, as well as training and oversight for legal aid lawyers around the country.

Founded in 1974 with key support from Sens. Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale, the corporation has since become a fraught political issue. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter selected a young attorney from Arkansas named Hillary Rodham to serve on its board; by 1981, President Ronald Reagan was proposing to eliminate it entirely, prompting that attorney, now named Clinton, to file a restraining order.

Conservatives have long argued that LSC engages in political advocacy as well as controversial welfare, abortion, and immigration cases, and that it’s not the federal government’s responsibility to provide free legal services. Legal aid lawyers counter that even with the Legal Services Corporation’s current level of funding they have to turn away more than 50 percent of the low-income people who seek their help. Preventing domestic violence, homelessness, and health problems, they add, saves taxpayer money in the long term.

“Especially in rural areas, legal services programs are representing veterans, the elderly, victims of natural disasters,” said Don Saunders, vice president for civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. “For a lot of values that are central to our democracy, this would be a tragedy.” — Eli Hager

Violence Against Women grants

The Heritage Foundation’s blueprint recommends eliminating all Violence Against Women Act grants, expected to be about $480 million in 2017. The reason, according to the blueprint, is that these programs should be funded locally, and relying on federal resources to protect victims of violent and sexual crime is “a distraction from the concerns that are truly the province of the federal government.”

Currently, the Office on Violence Against Women administers 25 grant programs designed to prevent and reduce domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. These funds not only go to service providers, such as shelters for victims, but directly to criminal justice agencies tasked with holding offenders accountable, such as police and prosecutors. In recent years, these grants have also helped provide services for people that have been sexually abused in prisons and jails.

“These funds are absolutely crucial,” said Mariah Stidham Wineski, the interim executive director for the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in a state where women are more at risk of being killed by men than in most other states in the nation, according to an analysis of federal homicide data. “These cuts would come at the cost of women’s lives, and that’s no exaggeration,” said Wineski, noting that last year domestic violence programs in Louisiana turned away over 2,500 requests for services due to a lack of resources. Leaders of other domestic violence coalitions expressed similar dismay.

Protecting people from domestic and sexual violence has long been a bipartisan issue. The Violence Against Women grants are funded by legislation that passed in 1994, after years of lobbying by women’s groups to persuade Congress that states were failing to address these crimes. The law was reauthorized in 2013. — Alysia Santo