Updated June 16, 2021 - 4:45 pm
WASHINGTON — Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and senior Republican lawmakers sent a letter Wednesday urging the Senate to quickly approve a law enforcement grant program that is the largest funnel of federal assistance to local police agencies.
The push comes as Congress is stalled on police reform legislation that aims to address “issues regarding policing practices and law enforcement accountability” over partisan differences. The House has approved the legislation but it remains stalled in the Senate.
The Byrne Justice Assistance Program, administered by the U.S. Justice Department, is separate and enjoys support from both sides of the aisle. The program provides competitive grants to local law enforcement programs that include counseling, police equipment, tactical training and other needs.
The letter seeking funding for the grants was signed by Cortez Masto, a Democrat, and senior Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa among nearly two dozen lawmakers.
Cortez Masto and Grassley also teamed up to sponsor a bill that passed the Senate last week. It would provide mental counseling and programs for law enforcement officers.
Mental health funding ‘absolutely necessary’
The letter Wednesday also falls on the anniversary of a Cortez Masto bill introduced last year, passed by Congress and signed into law. That legislation requires an increase in mental health intervention to prevent suicides among law enforcement officers.
“It’s absolutely necessary. It’s too long coming,” said Metropolitan Police Department Deputy Chief Kelly McMahill in a telephone interview from Las Vegas, of the measures to provide mental health and counseling.
McMahill said police and first-responder suicide “is epidemic and has increasingly gotten worse in the 25 years that I’ve been in law enforcement.” She said the department lost two officers to suicide and two to COVID-19 in the past year alone.
McMahill is head of the police Employee Assistance Program, which has just one director and six counselors for a 6,000 person agency made up of officers and citizens.
Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general, has sponsored several bills in the Senate providing increased mental health counseling programs for tribes, women, students and law enforcement and firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
They have also targeted the need for services for police officers.
Cortez Masto and Grassley called for full funding of the Byrne grant program in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a year of social unrest and protests over what critics say is systemic racism in law enforcement.
The letter was sent to senators on key committees who control the purse strings.
Grants funded nearly 1,000 programs in 2020
The Byrne grants have been approved by Congress every year in recent years and are the leading source of Justice Department funding for programs that include crime prevention, prosecution and mental and behavioral health.
Newer programs eligible for grant funding include officer safety, wellness and de-escalation tactics.
In 2020, Congress set aside $72 million for Byrne grants that went to nearly 1,000 programs.
The program was put on hold this year by the Biden administration for review after talks on police reform bills between the House and Senate stalled. Although the House passed a reform bill, the Senate remains stuck over a provision that would make it easier for a victim to seek legal redress from a officer convicted of misconduct.
But Senate lawmakers remain in favor of the grant program that has in the past provided bulletproof vests and expanded safety and health measures for law enforcement officers.
“As a former attorney general, I know how important it is for us to support Nevada law enforcement and give them the resources they need to keep our communities safe while also investing in programs that help improve policing,” Cortez Masto said in a statement. “That’s why I’m calling for full funding for our law enforcement nationwide, and why I’ve worked so hard to promote mental health programs for officers and address the epidemic of law enforcement suicide.”
McMahill said the need for counseling and mental health for law enforcement is not new, nor a result of the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas or last year’s street protests, which left an officer paralyzed.
She called those incidents horrific, but she noted that police and first responders experience a number of traumatic experiences that begin to build up over time. Shootings, accidental deaths, abuse and another of incidents that leave victims dead, injured or mentally shattered take their toll on those who arrive to help.
McMahill said police and fire careers are unique. She remains hopeful that “we can finally start to move in the right direction with mental health care for first responders.”