Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, billions of taxpayer dollars have flowed from Washington to the states and to local governments in the form of “Homeland Security Grants.” These monies are supposed to help state and local governments plug gaps in their funding needs that are directly related to addressing shortcomings in their abilitiy to deal with a potential terrorist incident. The reality is quite different. These billions often are used by local police to purchase fancy equipment of questionable, if any real value to “fighting terrorism.”
A rather typical example of the non-terrorism uses to which these grants have been put, was illustrated just last week in a news release issued by the sheriff’s office in Stafford County, Virginia, located about an hour south of the Washington, DC area. The release proudly heralded the fact that this local sheriff’s office had purchased an armored personnel carrier (euphemistically referred to as an “Incident Response Unit)” and a high-tech license plate reader system, with the proceeds of a $302,000 homeland security grant it had received.
Thus equipped, this quiet, ex-urban community now will be better prepared than previously to fend off a massive onslaught of well-armed terrorists through the use of its new Incident Response Unit; and, perhaps more important, will now have its squad cars able to scan thousands of license plates daily in order to ensure no vehicles on any “Terrorist Watch List” is permitted to ply the streets of Stafford undetected.
As illustrated in the fact that the Nigerian “underwear bomber” slipped aboard a US carrier right before Christmas last year even though his name appeared on at least one federal terrorist watch list, having one’s name on such a list certainly doesn’t guarantee a terrorist will be prevented from placing himself in a situation in which he can do harm. Of course, the size of such lists, stretching now to more than one million names, may also have something to do with the feasibility of maintinaing such lists for any meaningful purpose.
However, using so-called homeland security monies to equip local sheriff’s offices across the county with license plate scanning units supposedly to check vehicle registrations against a federal terrorist watch list, is more than a stretch. It is often employed as an excuse to obtain funds to supplement local police budgets and purchase fancy equipment that regular budgets don’t permit. For example, it is common knowledge that license plate recognition camera systems are being employed increasingly by police to run license plates through law enforcement databases to check for unpaid traffic tickets and other offenses. In other words, homeland security grants such as announced last week by the Stafford County sheriff really have little, if anything to do with “fighting terrorism,” and everything to do with boosting local government revenues, and with increasing their ability to build databases on who might be in their communities.
As for the armored personnel carrier now sitting at the sheriff’s office in Stafford, Virginia? I’m certain it will come in very handy on Friday nights this coming Fall, to quell those attacks by well-armed terrorist units who invade this quiet community with great frequency every high school football season.