Homeland Security Grants: Subsidizing Dystopia with Your Tax Dollars

My Washington Examiner column this week focuses on an important new study from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK): “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.”  If you’ve read any of the ample media coverage the report’s received, you may have heard that DHS grants have gone toward 13 sno-cone machines for terror-warriors in Michigan, a latrine on wheels for Fort Worth, Texas, a $100,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, and a Halloween “zombie apocalypse” demonstration at a swank resort outside San Diego.

But, as I argue in the Examiner,

the media focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse” misses a graver problem with DHS’s decade-long spending spree. Sno-cone machines and “zombie apocalypse” parties aren’t the worst things DHS is underwriting. We ought to worry more about the proliferation of surveillance cameras, mobile biometric scanners, armored personnel carriers and police drones.

The useless projects DHS funds are far less troubling than the ones that can be used to harm Americans’ privacy and liberty—and Coburn’s report is replete with examples of the latter.

Just today the Daily noted another troubling DHS project: “Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers…. Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus.” The Daily notes, unsurprisingly, “In San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security is funding the entire cost with a grant.”

It’s a mistake to look at DHS grants simply through the prism of government waste—as if what’s going on here is of a piece with $500 toilet seats and bridges to nowhere.  The costs of this unthinking slide toward a militarized, high-tech Idiocracy can’t be measured in budgetary terms alone.

More highlights from Coburn’s report after the jump:

Coburn also notes the use of DHS funds for police purchases of “Long Range Acoustic Device” crowd-control weapons:

originally developed for use by the military as a nonlethal way to repel adversaries, including Iraqi insurgents or pirates, by making a loud and intense sound that is capable of damaging hearing. Law enforcement agencies have purchased LRAD machines for purposes that include crowd control and issuing message and alerts across vast distances, though its use in terror-related preparedness is questionable.

In 2009, the Pittsburgh police department used its LRAD machine to disperse a crowd that was protesting the G-20 summit….
In 2009, the San Diego County Sheriff stationed its LRAD device at the town-hall meetings of Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA), Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), which drew conservative and liberal protestors. The San Diego sheriff’s stated that the LRADs were in place so they “could use the LRAD in place of pepper spray” if there were problem at the event, which there was not.

… Mobile Fingerprinting Devices:

The Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia,
part of the National Capital Region around
Washington, D.C., spent nearly $12 million to upgrade
its automated fingerprinting system called NOVARIS
and purchased mobile devices for use by officers in the
field. Digital fingerprinting had been in place for
Fairfax police since the early 1980’s, but the county
applied for, and won, UASI funds to purchase a new
state-of-the-art system, that would also help it
coordinate with neighboring counties. “Since it was
due for an upgrade, we took the opportunity to use the
UASI grant funds to refresh the system,” explained Alan Hanson with the department.
Hanson explained that the equipment “is used most often in a voluntary capacity” in situations where people are stopped but do not have identification.

…Armored Personnel Carriers:

police departments are arming themselves with military assets often reserved for war zones. One California resident observed as much when officials in Carlsbad—a city with one of the state’s lowest crime rates—expressed interest in using DHS funds to buy a BearCat: “What we’re really talking about here is a tank, and if we’re at the point where every small community needs a tank for protection, we’re in a lot more trouble as a state than I thought.”….

Fargo, a town which “has averaged fewer than 2 homicides per year since 2005” bought a “new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating [gun] turret” using homeland security funds. Fargo Police Lieutenant Ross Renner acknowledges that Fargo “[does not] have every-day threats here when it comes to terrorism.”

…and “Drones: Patrolling the Skies Like Never Before”:

In Texas, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department successfully acquired a $300,000 Vanguard’s ShadowHawk drone fully paid with UASI dollars. Vanguard, located near Montgomery County, approached the sheriff’s department about procuring one of its unmanned systems, according to Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel. In fact, Vanguard helped the Sheriff’s department write “a winning grant proposal that allowed the entire cost of acquisition, training, insurance, and maintenance for a period two years to be absorbed in an Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant.”

Do read the whole thing.