Security city

Times are lean, but there’s always money for counterterrorism toys

OK, the Sacramento Police Department didn’t really buy jet packs with its Homeland Security grants.

OK, the Sacramento Police Department didn’t really buy jet packs with its Homeland Security grants.

Illustration by Jason Crosby

Somebody noticed that the steel-gray robot—balanced on four heavy tires and thrusting its grappling claw into the air as though offering to shake hands—was moving. Standing near the back of the city press room, now uncomfortably warm with bodies crowded around TV cameras, Sacramento Police Sgt. Norm Leong perked up.

“Is it moving?” he asked. “It should not be moving. If it’s moving, I’d run.”

Leong was kidding, but the robot—which is used to locate and defuse bombs—is no joke. It cost federal taxpayers $165,000 in Urban Area Security Initiative money, which is actually why it was sitting at Mayor Kevin Johnson’s press conference last month.

“We’re excited to be here today,” Johnson said, announcing $7.5 million in newly approved grants for “disaster preparedness and training.” “Public safety has been a top priority since I’ve been in office,” he added. “We want to be a West Coast hub when it comes to Homeland Security.”

Local civil-liberties advocates might not share that vision; they worry that much of the local Homeland Security spending gets little public scrutiny.

Roughly $3.2 million of the total grant package is UASI money, which goes to the city of Sacramento (the remaining portion, which stems from a different grant, went to the county) for counterterrorism purposes. Think of it as a gift certificate for the latest urban-warfare toys: armored vehicles, biological detectors and, of course, sophisticated security cameras.

It turns out that the robot, while certainly a product of UASI money, is a few years old. Even its conversion to wireless—no longer will operators have to worry about snagging cables while maneuvering the robot into tight corners—took place a year ago.

And the big white Ford F-650 Super Duty Pro Loader that hauled it to the press conference, laden with heavy tool racks and diamond plating, is two years old as well. It cost $200,000 in UASI money from an earlier round.

Born of the 9/11 attacks, UASI money started pouring into California—and Sacramento—as early as 2003. In 2010, the feds gave California $155 million in UASI money, of which a bit more than $3 million made it to Sacramento. In all, Sacramento has brought in $44,466,673 in UASI money.

The 2005 UASI grant included $90,590 for a “RIOS communication system,” a computerized radio network, at the Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communications Center, according to a grant accounting provided by the California Emergency Management Association, which acts as a kind of clearinghouse for all UASI moneys. There was also $561,953 in “hazmat leak detection kits, server, database system, ultraradiac radiation monitor, night vision scopes, personal care/ID kits, mobile video monitor, leak drum/tank repair kit, decontamination equipment, chem agent detector, chem testing kits, acid neutralizers, radios, vapor suits and generators” for the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, the Sacramento Fire Department, the Roseville Fire Department, West Sacramento Fire Department and the Cosumnes Community Services District. The same grant bought $79,520 worth of “cyber security enhancement software to provide encrypted user access” for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

The next year, the Sacramento Police Department won a $122,702 “public notification and warning system.” “This was a reverse 911 system that can support the region,” Leong explained. “You can target areas and send calls to their phones notifying of emergencies, emergencies procedures, safety info, etc.”

In 2008, Sac PD won $165,519 in UASI money toward a new “ballistic armored tactical vehicle,” which is probably every bit as intimidating as it sounds. Probably, because even though the grant was approved nearly three years ago, they still haven’t taken delivery of the thing. “It has been ordered and should be arriving in June,” Leong said.

And, of course, you can’t do proper counterterrorism without a host of new security cameras to keep careful vigilance over, well, everything. The city asked for and received $614,964 worth of UASI-funded cameras and support trailers in the 2008 grant.

“This project will be used to purchase equipment to facilitate the installation and use of [closed-circuit] TV cameras strategically located throughout the city of Sacramento,” states the UASI outline provided by Cal EMA. “The cameras will be used for detection of evidence of criminal, terrorist activities, and significant planned and unplanned events held within the Region.”

The new surveillance plans have put privacy advocates on guard.

“Obviously, we have problems with government-run camera systems because of privacy issues,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is something we’re seeing across the country—local law enforcement using Homeland Security money to build security systems not vetted by local governments, with no auditing mechanisms to see if they’re efficient. These systems would not be built if this money didn’t drop in their laps.”

Though Sac PD controls much of this equipment, it’s a mistake to think the department is hoarding all the counterterrorist toys. In fact, law enforcement officials stressed, this stuff is available to all.

“These are regional assets,” Leong said shortly before Johnson’s press conference. “Folsom has a command post. It says ‘Folsom PD,’ but it’s a regional asset.”

Sheriff Scott Jones agreed. “All the egos have been brought down,” he said after the press conference. “This didn’t happen 10 years ago. Collaboration, regionalization—these are things we should have been doing.”

But all is not well in Sacramento’s counterterrorism world. In fact, times are pretty lean, because, to the chagrin of those who hang their political careers on maximizing Washington pork, Sacramento is a stubbornly safe place to live and work.

“We’re always looking for creative ways to calculate risk,” acting Cal EMA Secretary Mike Dayton said shortly after Johnson’s press conference, when asked just what Sacramento’s “risk” looked like. “We want to get the risk score as high as we can to get the funding.”

For the first few years of UASI, Sacramento used to get $6 million to $7 million in annual grants. But in 2006, the Department of Homeland Security looked over the region and decided it was pretty secure. In fact, it classified Sacramento’s risk as “among the bottom 25 percent of all urban areas.”

For local law enforcement, this could have been a death sentence for future UASI money. Congressional representatives, like Doris Matsui, begged federal officials to see that Sacramento was just a step away from the apocalypse.

“Sacramento has much at risk and is home to California’s Capitol, which serves as a symbol of our great state,” Matsui told then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a January 10, 2006, letter that reads a bit like a Tom Clancy novel. “At this time the FBI’s Sacramento Field Office has a significant number of terrorist investigations ongoing, well above the national average in numbers of cases and scope. Unfortunately, our area has also seen its share of attempted terrorist attacks. In 1999 militia members were arrested in a plot to blow up two propane tanks in Elk Grove, which resides in the UASI boundaries. If successful, the resulting firestorm from the 24 million gallon facility would have killed hundreds and damaged a large swath of residential and industrial neighborhoods.”

The feds relented, changed its risk classification, and now Sacramento sees a steady $3.5 million in annual UASI grants. Not as much as the old days, but still plenty of money for local law enforcement to buy toys.