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CBS debate on Homeland Security missed the mark, say local officials

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Local public safety and government officials watched attentively Sunday night as the CBS news program "60 Minutes" featured Tiptonville in a story about "pork-barrel spending" by the Department of Homeland Security.

Uniformly, they agreed that the program failed to address the harsh realities police and first responders in rural areas must face when they are charged with protecting Americans from terrorism. They also felt that if the current focus in Washington continues along its current path, the nation would ultimately be more at risk from terrorist attack than it was prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

The first step is to define terrorism

Macie Roberson, mayor of Lake County who was interviewed briefly in the CBS piece, had no complaints about the content of the segment or its treatment of Lake County, but he pointed to a false premise that appeared to be accepted by everyone in the debate -- the primary terrorist threat to America comes from overseas via the al-Qaida terrorist network.

"Washington is using its own definition of terrorism," he said. Roberson pointed to Timothy McVeigh who was responsible for destroying a federal building in Oklahoma City, Eric Rudolph who terrorized Atlanta with homemade bombs and the anthrax attack in the aftermath of 9-11, which he believed came from a domestic source. "What is terrorism? That is the first question we need to answer."

Roberson said violent actions by American citizens who adhere to radical political agendas of one type or another pose as serious a threat to smaller communities like Tiptonville and Dyersburg as they do to major urban areas. He also clung to his belief that rural communities would make inviting targets due to their lack of security personnel.

Dyersburg Police Chief Bobby Williamson, who is also the current president of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, backed Roberson on that point and added that funding of the Department of Homeland Security appeared to be bleeding necessary funds away from local law enforcement, the very group that would be at the forefront of any terrorist incident.

"Who captured Eric Rudolph?" he asked. "It was a rookie cop out doing what police are supposed to be doing -- protecting the homeland."

He believed a terrorist incident, whether from a domestic or international group, was likely in America sooner or later and pointed out that the first men and women on the scene would be local police, sheriff's deputies and firefighters.

"It's going to happen locally. Local police and firefighters are going to have to contain the situation until the experts arrive, and that could take awhile," he said. "All those journalists and Congressmen in Washington are at the top looking down, but we are at the bottom looking up and the picture is a lot different from where we stand."

Congressman Harold E. Ford of the 9th District in Tennessee also watched the "60 Minutes" program and claimed that not every member of the House and Senate cling to a single-minded view of terrorism. Ford said he and other members of Congress learned important lessons from the Rudolph case.

"It was a 21-year old police officer that recognized and apprehended alleged 1996 Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, just miles from the Tennessee border, in rural Murphy, North Carolina -- population 1,500," Ford said. "Revelations by Rudolph last week led to the discovery of bombs and bomb-making material in rural North Carolina, some ready to detonate.

"We have to acknowledge the broad nature of terrorist threats and the role our rural communities have to play. To that end, I introduced the Homeland Security Strategy Act last month that would require Homeland Security and intelligence leaders to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorism and a clear metric to ensure that we're doing everything we can to live up to that strategy."

Ford is a member of the influential Blue Dog Coalition, a conservative-leaning wing of the Democratic Party.

Dwindling support for front-line troops

While Congress and the Bush administration uniformly support the military troops engaged in the War on Terrorism overseas, their financial support of front-line "soldiers" on the domestic front, police and first responders, has appeared less than enthusiastic, said local public safety officials.

"Some of the most successful federal law enforcement grants have seen major cuts," Williamson stated.

Information he received from the International Association of Chiefs of Police indicated that the highly successful COPS grant would be cut by 80 percent in the proposed Bush Administration for fiscal year 2006, a figure totaling about $488 million, and the JAG grant will be eliminated completely, another $634 million.

"There is $2.3 billion less available to law enforcement (in terms of grants) compared to 2002. That is a ninety percent drop," Williamson charged. "We are going to be strapped for cash. Remember, I have to pay for the gasoline in our police cars, the higher insurance bills. Our costs are rising, but the grants are drying up, so we're having to fall back increasingly on local tax dollars to make up the difference, and the local pocketbook is already stretched pretty thin."

That is fueling resentment among Tennessee law enforcement officers that Homeland Security and the war overseas is being financed at the expense of their departments and is hindering their ability to fight everyday crime.

Ford sympathized with Williamson's view saying, "I opposed this year's budget cuts to the COPS program, a program that has put more than 2,300 additional police and sheriffs' deputies on the street in every part of our state. And not to mention, the president's budget eliminates funding for the total lack of funding for SAFER Grants, grants for hiring new firefighters, which will unnecessarily punish fire departments across our state."

Ford acknowledged that Homeland Security funds for "Main Street America" were already being cut. "This year's budget included a little more than $20 million in cuts for Homeland Security in Tennessee," he pointed out. "That reduces the amount spent per Tennessean to just $6."

Roberson wondered if Washington somehow expected shortfalls in law enforcement budgets to be picked up by local governments. He said that ignored a simple reality that tax bases in rural areas are simply too shallow to carry the load. Roberson pointed out that Lake County had the dubious distinction of being at the bottom of the barrel in Tennessee when it came to how much one penny of county property tax will purchase.

"There is a lack of common sense to all of this," Roberson charged.

James Medling, Dyer County fire chief, said he was running into the same brick wall as law enforcement when it came to finding grants to upgrade equipment or improve the skills of volunteer firefighters.

"From last year to this year, we received about half the funding from Homeland Security," he explained. "FEMA has grants to fire departments. Those were cut $750 million last year, and I understand they may be cut another $100 million."

Looking ahead to 2006, Medling expects more reductions. The federal larder is only so large, even with deficit spending. Funding a new cabinet-level department and an expensive war overseas is bleeding away funds that local fire departments once counted upon to improve, even sustain, their operations.

"Some larger cities across the country are taking a big hit already and they're reducing personnel and programs because of the cuts and the reshuffling of funds in Washington," Williamson said.

Those cuts cannot help but impact a U.S. response to terrorism if the trend continues, Williamson believed. After all, local police and firefighters are the "men fighting in the trenches."

From the bottom up, not the top down

Medling disputed the claim that Homeland Security spending was as random as the CBS segment tended to imply.

"When it started out right after 9-11, yes, they just threw money at the problem and, there were abuses. People looked at the list of approved purchase items and bought what they wanted, but that is changing," Medling stated. "Now, Tennessee has decided to organize on a district level."

The CBS interviews were made apparently without a full understanding of how Tennessee runs Homeland Security, he believed.

The state is divided into 11 districts. Lake and Dyer both belong to District 9, a group of Northwest Tennessee counties. Individual departments in counties and cities have been assigned specific tasks and are given specific duties within the district. Should a terrorist incident occur, the appropriate specialized teams will quickly move to the scene of the trouble in that district.

"In Dyer County we are responsible for Level 3 HAZMAT, which is the most expensive part of the process," he said. "We provide the HAZMAT team for all of District 9. Someone could look at our expensive chemical suits and think they don't belong in Dyer County, but when you take the nine-county area as a whole and the part we play, it makes more sense.

"The '60 Minutes' segment should have addressed the district concept and then some of the things may have looked more appropriate."

This approach also controls costs by allowing departments within a district to specialize instead of demanding uniform training for everyone. It is what he describes as a "bottom to top" approach instead of the current "top down" focus of the Department of Homeland Security, which tends to mimic a military organization.

"While local law enforcement is quasi-military, the mindset is completely different," Williamson said in support of Medling's "grassroots" vision for Homeland Security. He explained that he wants to see Homeland Security turned over to experienced law enforcement officers on the state and local levels with intelligence feeding down to them from Washington.

"Each locale may be different, but the goal is the same -- fight crime and keep the homeland safe," he stated.

Ford said he hoped to hear directly from local law enforcement officials and first responders at a conference he is hosting on May 6 in Memphis focused on Homeland Security matters.

"We need to make sure that the federal government is doing more than just throwing money at the problem," he stated. "Instead, we need to make sure that the federal government is a constructive and helpful partner."

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