New York City plans to use an eye-popping $24.3 million this year in federal homeland security grants just for paying overtime to its police department, money that's generally set aside by Congress to help states battle terrorist threats and prepare for disasters. The multimillion-dollar line item is buried in local budget documents amid other expenditures for drug enforcement, organized crime investigations, urban search and rescue, port protection and more.
Officials in New York have fiercely defended their right to hundreds of millions in readiness grants since the Sept. 11 attacks, loudly condemning both George Bush and Barack Obama when each tried to scale back the large sums it receives over other states for homeland security.
Last summer, Big Apple politicians blasted White House plans to trim back two major federal grant programs, accusing the Obama administration of "mind-bogglingly bad judgment" and arguing that New York City faces the gravest risk of new assaults. It seemed unlikely much would change once Long Island's noisy Republican congressman, Peter King, took over this year as chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Sure enough, days before the White House released its budget for the 2012 fiscal year, King dispatched a letter to Obama recommending that the president keep New York City in mind as he determined how to slice up taxpayer money. The letter was co-signed by Democrat Nita Lowey of New York.
If Obama's subsequent proposal is any indication, New York stands to earn hefty increases totaling more than $41 million in grant funds for the coming fiscal year. On the subject of overtime, King's office provided Elevated Risk with this statement:
New York City remains the top target of al-Qaeda. Since 2001, [New York City] has been the target of at least 11 failed or foiled terror plots. Each year, New York spends hundreds of millions of dollars of its own funds on counterterrorism efforts.
A new report released Feb. 4 says Washington poured nearly $625 million into the state of New York between 2006 and 2008 across five major grants. States are eligible for much more money stuffed each year into a bewildering array of programs managed by the Department of Homeland Security.
Grants to New York have been used for everything from surveillance cameras, license-plate scanners and laptops to GPS devices, patrol boats and toxic-vapor analyzers. Despite uproar in the past over threatened cuts, local authorities don't always deploy new gear with the utmost urgency.
Other investments made by New York threaten to duplicate the federal government's existing war-on-terror responsibilities. The NYPD has its own sprawling intelligence division, complete with an "International Liaison Program" that boasts nearly a dozen offices around the globe and a team of civilian analysts hailing from finance, academia, law and even the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan.
Budget figures reportedly put the NYPD's intelligence and counterterrorism spending at nearly $70 million every year, but the Washington Post's resident expert on all-things-spook, Jeff Stein, says department brass won't disclose whether that money is being used to station investigators in France, Britain, Spain and elsewhere. (During House testimony in 2005, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly cited a much higher figure for annual expenditures: $180 million.)
The liaison program enjoys only scant oversight, unlike everyday patrol officers who in many cities operate under the watchful eye of civilian panels that ensure police are enforcing the law responsibly. Intelligence committees on Capitol Hill, the CIA and the State Department, for their part, appear to exert very limited, if any, authority over NYPD personnel operating abroad, according to Stein:
That's the problem, critics say, pointing to a half-dozen reported incidents of NYPD officers barging into the scenes of terrorist attacks in London, Mumbai, Madrid, Singapore and Jakarta, virtually impersonating U.S. counterterrorism agents and leaving local security officials confused, or worse, fuming.
Some are beginning to wonder if the steep price tag for security in New York will ever be enough. Is overtime an appropriate use of preparedness grants in the first place? We posed that question to officials at the NYPD and the Department of Homeland Security.
Unfortunately, the NYPD never got back to us. DHS provided only a brief prepared statement without explaining whether the agency was aware of New York's outsized bill for overtime, or if the federal government specifically approved $24 million worth:
Backfill and overtime are allowable costs. Additionally, [the] NYPD has received approval for operational overtime expenses, and overtime for personnel to participate in information, investigative and intelligence-sharing activities.
The statement then refers to grant guidelines issued in 2010, which permit overtime for, among other things, personnel assigned to Joint Terrorism Task Forces, made up of both local officials and federal agents. Washington significantly expanded the JTTF program after Sept. 11.
Homeland security officials have nonetheless said during previous grant years that the anti-terrorism and readiness funds lawmakers began shelling out after Sept. 11 were meant more for planning and public-safety equipment. Specifically, the goal was to create new preparedness capabilities believed to be dangerously missing in cities across the country.
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown announced in 2003 that he would use several million worth of grant funds to pay for policing demonstrations that broke out there after the Iraq War began. Brown claimed terrorists could use the protests as cover for attacks on high-profile destinations in San Francisco.
But one source at the time said it probably wouldn't be allowed, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that the money was "not for overtime or operational costs."
The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained documents last year showing that San Francisco managed to quietly push the expenditure through anyway, including thousands of dollars spent to feed police during the protests. One of the listed demonstrations occurred outside the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
State overseers responsible for how California handles homeland security grants continued to question San Francisco's use of the money, arguing the protest costs weren't related to "critical infrastructure protection." They dropped the matter, however, after San Francisco produced a letter from California's former homeland security chief, George Vinson, that authorized the spending.
Similar questions have surfaced in New York. Auditors there targeted $934,000 in personnel costs tied to routine patrols during an "orange" heightened alert period. The city of Buffalo tried to stick federal taxpayers with the bill, including salaries for a police chief, captain and local fire department employees. A report, however, said Buffalo would have incurred such costs "regardless of the terror alert level." According to documents, officials resolved the matter by transferring the questioned expenditures to a "state-funded account."
A former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, Matt Mayer, criticized federal preparedness grants earlier this month as "pork-barrel spending" by Congress. But in an email to CIR, he stopped short when asked about NYPD overtime: "NYC is well-and-above the number one threat city, so second-guessing them when I don't have the intel would be pretty reckless."
Disputes over homeland security cash presumably will continue as state and local governments face staggering budget shortfalls and seek to leave as many costs as possible on Washington's doorstep.
G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 to launch its ongoing homeland security project. Read the project's blog, Elevated Risk, here.