Police grants shrinking

By Mal Leary, Capitol News Service
Posted Sept. 11, 2008, at 9:37 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine law enforcement officials hope a new Congress and a new president will mean a change in federal policy that has slashed traditional police grants for equipment, training and staff while increasing Homeland Security grants.

“A big concern among the chiefs is the cuts at MDEA [Maine Drug Enforcement Agency] while there is federal grant [money] for all sorts of equipment to deal with anything to do with homeland security,” said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

Schwartz said many police agencies have used the federal police grants for replacing needed equipment and for important training programs. But the amounts for such grants have been slashed as new programs for homeland security have been created, he said.

“We see more funding opportunities in those types of areas than we do in the bread and butter law enforcement areas like drug enforcement,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association. “We have benefited from the [homeland] security grants; we certainly have. But not all of those grants help in law enforcement.”

For example, he said, a lot of federal money has been used to upgrade law enforcement radio systems allowing various agencies to communicate more easily with each other. A major criticism of the 9-11 Commission was the lack of that communications capacity by first responders.

“If your department is getting something that you can use on a daily basis or a routine basis, then to me that makes sense,” said Col. Pat Fleming, chief of the Maine State Police. “There are certainly some things that they require you to do, [but] you can’t use it for anything but homeland defense. And some things get bought that just sit, and to me that is wasteful.”

He agreed that some of the Homeland Security grants have had a broad benefit and that State Police have better communications capabilities today because of the federal funds.

“But cuts in other funds have really hurt efforts like the MDEA; over half their funding was from grants,” he said.

Fleming said there is widespread concern in law enforcement because of the cuts used to fund drug enforcement efforts. But he said other grant programs also have been reduced in recent years.

While Homeland Security grants did not exist seven years ago, total allocations to Maine this federal budget year are nearly $18 million. But grants for traditional law enforcement have decreased sharply. In 2004, Maine got more than $3 million. The current block grant is $642,630.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said President Bush has proposed cuts every year in several law enforcement assistance programs and has proposed the elimination of others.

“I totally disagree with that,” she said. “I think that these are very important programs. The Senate fully funded it, but it was taken out in conference and I have been working hard to get funding restored.”

Collins said no lawmaker has taken responsibility for cutting the funds in the conference committee. She has heard the criticism from local police about the federal emphasis on Homeland Security grants at the expense of traditional law enforcement activities, but argued many have been able to use those grants for important enforcement activities.

“A lot of the funding for homeland security uses also is very helpful in dealing with drug smugglers and natural disasters,” she said.

Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, said the narrow focus of the Bush administration on the terrorist threat not only has had an impact on law enforcement, it also led to the “pathetic” response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Hurricane Katrina.

“There are a variety of different kinds of risks and threats that we face,” he said. “We ought to make sure we are being comprehensive and careful in how we respond to them.”

Both lawmakers have voted for greater funding for law enforcement grant programs. With Congress expected to continue most programs at current levels with a continuing resolution, the final funding for the programs may not be decided until January when a new president and a new Congress take office.

Some sizable Homeland Security grants previously awarded in Maine include:

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/09/11/politics/police-grants-shrinking/ printed on September 20, 2014