WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is reviving a controversial Clinton-era police hiring program, and the lack of restrictions on the money has critics warning of wasteful spending.

The stimulus package loosens the old rules for the program by dropping a provision that required police agencies to pay millions in local dollars to tap federal hiring grants. It gives police agencies nearly unfettered access to $1 billion over three years for hiring up to 6,000 officers as many departments face cuts.

That money is part of an overall effort, unveiled in Obama’s budget proposal Thursday, to fund 50,000 new police officers. The budget does not specify a time frame or cost, and Justice Department documents say rules for the broader program will be released later.

Some criminal justice analysts say the rules in the stimulus package don’t require enough commitment from local agencies and that the program offers a potentially false promise that more police lead to less crime.

“No matching funds mean no accountability,” says David Muhlhausen, a justice policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “This is giving away free money.” He says there was “no conclusive evidence that the grants helped decrease crime” during the initial program.

Craig Uchida, a former Clinton official who helped oversee the program, says the matching funds made cities “accountable” because they invested their own money. Police agencies had to pay 25% of all new officer salaries and benefits for the three-year federal grant period. “Our view was, let’s not give (recipients) a free ride,” he says.

Justice Department spokesman Corey Ray says the stimulus money could begin flowing to agencies within weeks and save some from layoffs that threaten public safety.

He says the bad economy makes the change necessary because the old rules blocked some cash-strapped agencies from participating, and the need for help is even greater now. The police grants, along with other stimulus spending, will get extra scrutiny by administration auditors, he says.

The original Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, championed by Vice President Biden while he was in the Senate, provided funding for more than 100,000 officers.

The Justice Department’s own audits of the program alleged millions of dollars were misspent and thousands of jobs funded by the grants were never filled. In one case, a New Mexico tribe got $728,125 to hire eight extra officers. After the department closed in 2002, auditors said it was unclear where the money went or whether anyone was hired.

Ray says the problems related to the original program involved a small number of agencies.

Police groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), have tried to resurrect COPS since the Bush administration shut it down after 9/11, when U.S. funds were shifted to homeland security.

Under Clinton, COPS was designed to battle a spike in violent crime. Gene Voegtlin, the IACP’s legislative counsel, credits COPS with helping to spur the subsequent crime decline. Yet some cities that did not accept the money, such as Oklahoma City, reported equal declines to those that did.

The Obama program is being rolled out as crime has declined in much of the past decade, including 2007, the most recent year measured by the FBI.

A study released in January by the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank, found nearly half of the 233 police agencies surveyed linked recent increases in criminal offenses, such as robberies, to the economy.

Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, says the new grant program is a “giveaway” that postpones needed change.

“Local governments need to learn how to live on smaller budgets and figure out what we need to jettison, including law enforcement,” she says.

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is reviving a controversial Clinton-era police hiring program, and…