By Vernon Herron, Senior Policy Analyst
After a year-long study of federal homeland security grant programs, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, authored a report that’s critical of the Department of Homeland Security’s disbursement of grant monies used to defend this country from future terrorist attacks and could threaten the future of important programs that keep our citizens safe.
The report highlights the use and sometimes abuse of the Urban Area Security Initiatives (UASI) program. It gives millions of dollars a year to major U.S. cities to prevent another attack by strengthening their capabilities and closing vulnerability gaps that existed before the 9/11 attacks. The funding formula basically splits cities into two tiers. Tier 1 cities are the largest ones with the most vulnerability. Tier 2 includes being those classified with less critical vulnerabilities. Of course, cities like New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are in Tier 1 and cities like Columbus, Ohio and Tulsa, Oklahoma are in Tier 2. The process is simple: DHS notifies cities of their intended allocation amount and the jurisdictions submit a grant application describing how they would spend the money to fight terrorism.
Being a former Public Safety Director in the National Capital Region (NCR), I saw first-hand how these monies strengthen the counterterrorism capabilities of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Prior to UASI, not all of the first responders in jurisdictions throughout the NCR were on the same radio frequency and therefore, they could not talk to each other in real-time during a major emergency. However, with the use of UASI grant monies, jurisdictions within the NCR were able to upgrade their radios and today, if a similar attack occurred, all the first responders have the ability to communicate with each other seamlessly. UASI funding was also responsible for the purchase of several bomb squad vehicles, mass casualty medical transport busses, and a patient tracking system which allows paramedics to enter patient information with a handheld device on the scene of the disaster and immediately transmit the patient’s injuries and vital signs to the hospital staff. Another program funded by UASI is AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System). It allows police officers to identify someone in a matter of minutes instead faxing the fingerprint card to the FBI, which could take hours. Even more examples of effective UASI funding include programs for training, exercises and fusion centers, which are designed to promote the sharing of critical intelligence information between federal agencies like the FBI, CIA, and DOJ.
Senator Coburn’s report fails to mention the aforementioned enhancement capabilities of the NCR and other jurisdictions as a direct result of the UASI program. Instead, the main focus is what he describes as “abuses and inappropriate uses of the grant program.” Senator Coburn is now recommending the Department of Homeland Security develop metrics on how the money is spent. Additionally, he is calling for the suspension of the UASI funding until DHS develops enhanced oversight on how these taxpayer dollars are used to fight terrorism. Some of the abuses outlined in the report include the purchase of 13 snow cone machines by a jurisdiction in Michigan, and the purchase of a 45 million dollar video surveillance system by officials in Cook County, Illinois. The system was supposed to be able to capture activity around critical infrastructure within Chicago’s city limits. It ended up being a failure because it was not properly tested or installed. Keene is a city in New Hampshire with a population of 23,000 and a police force of 40. It set aside UASI funds to purchase a Bearcat armored vehicle. Although the City of Keene only had a single homicide in the prior two years, officials there told DHS that the vehicle was needed to patrol events like its annual pumpkin festival.
To be fair to the officials in Illinois, and without having reviewed their grant justifications for UASI funds, it would be difficult to characterize their purchase of a security video system as an abuse of taxpayer dollars. However, the installation of such an expensive video system without first implementing a pilot of the system should be of concern. Admittedly, the purchases made by officials in Michigan of 13 snow cone machines and the purchase of an armored vehicle in Keene may not have been the most appropriate use of federal grant money.
In my public safety experience, I have found that most disasters start at the local level and a crisis, despite our best efforts to predict, are unpredictable. The attacks of 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the first bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City resulted in the loss of thousands of American lives. It would be safe to say that at this moment, a terrorist cell or a lone wolf may be plotting an attack somewhere on American soil. Whether the attack is at a federal building or in a public shopping mall, we must be prepared. That attack could be in the largest cities or a city of only 23,000 residents.
Government officials who apply for and subsequently are awarded UASI or other federal dollars should only do so when there is a genuine need for these monies. All of us have a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard our federal tax dollars. Purchasing equipment with these funds for the sole purpose of keeping up with a neighboring jurisdiction is foolish and casts an unwarranted cloud on appropriate spending. Urban Area Security Initiative funding has been critical in providing jurisdictions with the capabilities to better protect the public. Yes, we are better prepared since the attacks of September, 11, 2001 and yes we do need established metrics for grant expenditures. If these federal grant monies are not used for their intended purpose of enhancing our capabilities, we are truly not serving our citizens effectively. Senator Coburn is right to draw attention to possible waste and if his report is accurate, that’s tragic. However, the suspension of the UASI funding as result of a few inappropriate expenditures does by no means outweigh the good this initiative has been in enhancing our capabilities and making our country safer against future terrorist attacks.
Senator Coburn’s report is titled, “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security in U.S. Cities. You can read it here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/115812387/Homeland-Security-Spending-Report-Tom-Coburn
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