Why Some DHS Money Is Best Left on the Table

Why Some DHS Money Is Best Left on the Table
Photographer/Mayoral Photography Office

A slap-fight erupted last week between New York leaders and the White House after the latter cut the city's share of a controversial type of antiterror funding. True to form, our local representatives promptly dialed up the fearmongering in an attempt to shame D.C. into offering up a bigger slice of the pie. What they failed to mention was that they're currently hoarding similar funds totaling more than half a billion dollars.

Making matters worse, at least to the progressively minded New Yorker, is the fact that the monies at issue — Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants — are the same funds fueling a nationwide trend toward militarized policing. If your one-stoplight town has an up- armored MRAP and a bunch of grenade launchers, in other words, this is probably how they got there.

It all began at a press conference last Wednesday during which Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer decried cuts to a program known as the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). The UASI is one of several grant programs administered by Homeland Security to provide certain cities with funds to, ostensibly, help them protect against terrorist attacks on high-value targets.

In arguing for the continued full funding of the program, the mayor and Bratton invoked ISIS, the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and, of course, 9-11. The cuts, they said, which would reduce proposed funding levels for city agencies from $180 million to about $90 million, would leave us vulnerable. (The New York Daily News's Thursday cover parroted the top cop's criticism with typical nuance, declaring that Obama's cuts must mean he had "forgotten 9-11.")

But the high melodrama leaves out some facts.

As White House spokesman Josh Earnest pointed out when he was asked about the cuts at a press conference in D.C. last week, New York State — which distributes the grants to local agencies — has been sitting on a huge pile of these "critical" funds disbursed in years past. "Right now in the DHS funding that is provided to New York," Earnest explained, "there is $600 million that's sitting in that account.... This year's contribution into that account is almost twice as much as New York officials have spent out of that account over the last two years combined." In other words, how dire can the need be if New York officials haven't seen fit to spend more than half a billion already in their coffers?

Grants from UASI and other DHS programs come to New York in big chunks before being allocated to various smaller agencies across the state. It's too early to know exactly how those allocations will break down, but the $90 million Bratton mentioned will ultimately be divvied up among the NYPD, FDNY, and the city's Office of Emergency Management, with the cops getting the bulk. And while a $90 million loss isn't nothing, the NYPD isn't exactly hard up for cash; the department's proposed budget for 2016 is $4.8 billion. By comparison, the budget for New York City's Department of Homeless Services tops out at just over $1 billion. Bratton still called the trimming "indefensible."

"We have, over these last fourteen years, similar to what London has done — we have created a Domain Awareness System," Bratton said, referring to the kinds of high-tech surveillance devices the city spends UASI and other Homeland Security funds on. "Almost 9,000 cameras, thousands of license plate scanners, thousands of radiation detection devices." Such equipment purchases, as well as officer overtime, were what DHS grants were always intended to fund — the kinds of extras that departments don't normally budget for. And after 9-11, grants like UASI saw exponential growth as agencies looked to play catch-up in an era of constant fear.

But grants like this were meant to be a supplement, not a sustained funding source. And yet they're still with us, helping spur ever more militarized policing as departments all over the country, large and small, have used DHS lucre to become heavily armed mini spy agencies. That trend has been documented for a decade or more but only entered the national conversation in 2014, after protests erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and footage emerged of cops riding in armored vehicles and waving sniper rifles over the heads of demonstrators. The New York Times later detailed the use of heavy-duty military-style weaponry by departments all over the country — and where did much of the funding for it come from? From those DHS grants, including UASI.

Similar stories have cropped up closer to home. When the NYCLU uncovered potentially illegal, warrantless use of a sophisticated cellphone spying device by the Erie County Sheriff's Department last year, it set off a local controversy. The devices the department was using, called Stingrays, can be and apparently were used to track cellphones without court supervision. Where did Erie County reportedly get those devices? Through a DHS grant.

In fact, over the past decade and a half, as billions have flowed through these grant programs, they've turned into a cottage industry. Companies that provide high-tech spy gear have even gone so far as to set up a parallel industry designed to help agencies write grant proposals for their products.

It's not just a lefty issue, either. In a report in 2012, then-senator Tom Coburn, a conservative from Oklahoma, savaged DHS grants. He'd found military-grade weapons flowing to tiny agencies in rural areas, even to college campuses. That's not to mention straight-up waste, as at the California agency that leased a building for years, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, then allowed it to sit unused.

If that weren't enough reason for progressive leaders in a progressive state to support cuts to DHS grants — or at least to take such cuts in stride — there's another problem with UASI in New York: a highly critical audit released last summer that found widespread problems with how the funds have been managed in this state.

Conducted by the DHS's Office of the Inspector General — an independent watchdog tasked with following up on how federal money is spent — the audit, which examined spending between 2010 and 2012, questioned $42 million in overtime costs logged by the NYPD, among a litany of other potential problems. Examples included delays in fund distribution — some payouts stretched 670 days past deadline — and nearly half a million dollars spent on a generator with no competitive bid process, a practice that could violate federal rules. Summing up the state and city's performance with uncharacteristic bluntness, OIG auditors wrote that the "NYPD and FDNY had unsupported overtime, unapproved equipment purchases, questionable procurement practices, and unverifiable items."

Of course, the NYPD disputed the auditors' findings. A main point of contention was what constitutes "critical infrastructure," which is what UASI funds are supposed to protect. The DHS definition includes only facilities "so vital to the United States" that, if attacked, there would be national consequences. So when the NYPD used funds for overtime patrol of places like midtown hotels, the auditors didn't think that qualified; the NYPD answered that an attack on a hotel in the nation's largest city could have national ramifications. But if all infrastructure is "critical," then nothing really is.

A mayoral spokesperson, in comments emailed to the Voice, also downplayed the audit's findings, saying they were mostly due to insufficient paperwork justifying expenditures. The spokesperson said that "of the over $2 billion allocated to the city since the inception of the UASI grant, less than 1 percent" was ultimately deemed inappropriate.

"Every single expenditure from these UASI grants," the spokesperson continued, "has been for critical counterterror efforts to protect New Yorkers who live in the country's top terrorist target."

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