President Obama suggested on Wednesday that the government provide grant money to hire police in schools, prompting cries of hypocrisy on the right after a proposal by the National Rifle Association to hire armed guards to protect children was met with widespread ridicule. But Obama’s plan has more in common with a program enacted by President Bill Clinton and eliminated by President Bush.
According to the White House, Obama plans on “using this year’s COPS program to provide incentives for more police departments to hire school resource officers” in addition to a “new, comprehensive school safety initiative to help local school districts hire up to 1,000 school resource officers and school-based mental health professionals, as well as make other investments in school safety.”
The COPS program was created by the 1994 crime bill, a law signed by Clinton and sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) with the goal of hiring 100,000 police officers nationwide. Other provisions in the anti-crime package included the Violence Against Women Act and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, both of which have since lapsed over Democratic objections.
After a wave of school shootings in the late 1990s, Clinton signed a bill funding grants to hire specially trained community officers in schools. The bill was authored by by then-Rep. James Maloney (D-CT), whose district includes Newtown today, and was aimed at least in part at preventing mass shootings. At a press conference in 1998, Clinton argued for passage of Maloney’s proposal by telling the story of a school officer in Richmond, Va., who was hired by the existing COPS program and apprehended a 14-year old shooter after the teenager wounded two students.
Although stopping school shootings was one goal of the effort, which Clinton expanded into the COPS In School Program, officers typically functioned more as guidance counselors and community liaisons. Here, for example, is how a Newtown officer described his work to the Associated Press in 1999:
Chris Vanghele, a school resource officer in Newtown, says law enforcement is only one of many functions performed by school patrols.
“A lot of people have the wrong perception. They think I’m in the schools because of school shootings in other parts of the nation,” Vanghele told the [AP].
“Obviously, if there is a crisis like that, it helps that I’m here,” he said. “But the main reason I’m here is to give kids respect for police officers and to be someone who can listen.”
But the COPS In Schools Program didn’t last: its funding was cut dramatically under Bush until it was eliminated in the 2006 budget over opposition from a number of Democratic lawmakers including Biden.
Conservative commentators in recent days have complained that Obama’s and Clinton’s efforts before him are more or less endorsements of the NRA’s plan to deploy armed guards in schools. But there are key differences: for one thing, Clinton and Obama called for specially trained police officers while LaPierre suggested arming volunteers as well. For another, both Clinton and Obama backed hiring new officers as part of a larger crackdown on gun violence that included restrictions on the design and sale of firearms.
“You know, I am not going to prejudge the recommendations that are given to me,” Obama said on Meet The Press last month when asked about the NRA proposal. “I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools. And I think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow is going to solve our problem.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.