WASHINGTON — The Clovis, Dinuba and West Sacramento police departments erroneously received hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire or retain police officers as part of a huge economic stimulus bill, auditors have concluded.
But apparently, the Central Valley communities are blameless. Instead, Justice Department technical miscalculations resulted in cop-hiring grants being wrongly awarded to the three cities and other law enforcement agencies nationwide.
"We identified inaccuracies in some of the formulas ... used to score and rank grant applications," the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General noted. "These inaccuracies resulted in the allocation of grants to 45 agencies that should not have received grants."
The cities won't have to pay back the money, and they can keep the officers.
Clovis, for instance, can hold onto the $1.5 million grant announced in July 2009 for five officers. The Dinuba Police Department was awarded $543,842 to retain two officers. West Sacramento was awarded $973,356 for three officers.
The Willows, Sutter Creek and Pittsburg police departments, as well as the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department, likewise can retain the grants they shouldn't have received, auditors determined in the 86-page report quietly issued in May.
"Obviously, the error benefited us greatly, especially since they're not seeking reimbursement," Dinuba Police Chief James Olvera said when informed of the audit Wednesday. "(The grant) came at a perfect time, just as we were about to lay off the two officers."
The funding formula miscalculations also meant 34 law enforcement agencies that otherwise were eligible failed to receive grants. In California, these included the Red Bluff Police Department and the Trinity County Sheriff's Department
"I understand somebody else could have benefited from this grant as well," said Capt. James Gentry of the Clovis Police Department, "but at the same time, I've seen the impact it's had in our city."
Gentry said last year's grant enabled Clovis to retain one experienced officer and hire four new officers. This, in turn, helped the city staff ongoing traffic and anti-gang efforts, among other priorities.
"For us, it was very important," Gentry said of the grant.
Justice Department officials say they'll fix the problems for future grants provided through the politically popular Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS. They'll also make it up to the cities that didn't receive money they should have.
"We agree that there were minor technical inaccuracies," COPS program director Bernard K. Melekian stated in his formal audit response, blaming "the extremely high demand for funding, the development of our new on-line application system, and the dramatically compressed timeline to award (grants)."
The COPS program has provided billions of dollars to boost law enforcement hiring nationwide since 1994. The grants typically cover three years before the communities must absorb the full cost of the newly hired officers.
As part of a $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed in February 2009, Congress provided an additional $1 billion for COPS grants. At the sound of the bell, cities and counties came running.
The Justice Department received 7,272 applications requesting funding for approximately 39,000 officers. Last July, officials selected 1,046 law enforcement agencies, which would hire, rehire or retain 4,699 officers.
Overall, auditors found the Justice Department administered the grants in a "timely, transparent, and merit-based manner." Auditors further praised the "prompt and reasonable manner" in which funds were distributed.
The technical problems, though, translated into mislaid money.
Officials ranked applicants according to economic conditions, rates of crime, and community policing activities. Economically stressed communities with high crime rates were supposed to be high priority.
But auditors noted the formulas used to assess changing economic circumstances did not properly account for some data. The results shifted city rankings.
The mistaken grants amounted to $14.6 million nation, less than 2 percent of the total provided last year.
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