Author(s): JOAN VENNOCHI Date: March 25, 2004 Page: A15 Section: Op-Ed
THE POST-9/11 WORLD IS FILLED WITH POTENTIAL TERRORIST TARGETS,
FROM LNG TANKERS TO TRAIN STATIONS. BUT THE MOST BASIC THREAT
TO HOMELAND SECURITY IS ALSO THE MOST PROSAIC _ A LACK OF MONEY
FOR POLICE, FIREFIGHTERS, AND OTHER EMERGENCY RESPONDERS.
Revere Police Captain James Guido bravely raised that point before a panel of high-ranking state and city officials toward the end of a recent event held at Fenway Park to discuss homeland security. Because the Revere Police Department is losing officers to state budget cuts, "we don't have any extra manpower" for emergencies, terrorist-based or not, Guido said.
Governor Romney, who participated in the discussion with Mayor Thomas Menino and Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole, blithely agreed: "You are absolutely right. States don't have as much money as they used to . . . Communities don't have as much money. They are placed in a real squeeze." Romney's proposed budget maintains $20 million for community policing, but the fiscal squeeze is a direct result of his no-new-tax approach to government. But this gathering delicately skirted that issue. Only after moderator Frank Sesno pressed Gerald Fontana of the Boston Fire Department on whether the department is feeling "squeezed" did Fontana acknowledge: "We are feeling it. We are squeezed. Everyone is sharing in the lack of funds."
Romney and Menino reached the refreshingly nonpartisan conclusion that communication between the federal and local levels is improved thanks in part to the federal Department of Homeland Security. Menino said mayors have access to more and better information from the federal government.
Federal authorities now share information about specific terrorist threats and discuss terror alerts in a way that did not occur prior to the attacks of Sept. 11 - or immediately after, as indicated by the disclosure by Richard A. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief, that terrorist suspects had entered Boston on liquid natural gas tankers coming into the harbor.
"Money is starting to flow into our cities," Menino noted. Massachusetts is receiving $45 million in homeland security funding, which can be used for equipment and surveillance. There are some allowable personnel costs, specifically "overtime and replacement costs for terrorist-related training and exercises." Yet as Revere's Police Chief Terence K. Reardon points out during a follow-up telephone interview, having extra money for equipment and surveillance is nice, but without sufficient personnel, it's not as nice as it should be. Without police officers on the street, "what you're doing is going from proactive to reactive" law enforcement. Revere's mayor, Thomas G. Ambrosino, echoes the concern, noting that the Revere police force is down from 107 officers in 2000 to 86 in 2004.
"The way most cities and towns have survived is by cutting personnel," said Ambrosino. . . . We don't have enough personnel to take care of normal, everday occurrences, let alone any kind of terrorist occurrence."
Ambrosino says that he and other mayors have been "screaming, pleading with legislators" to understand that "when you are not raising state revenue at the state level and you are cutting it at the local level, you are absolutely affecting core services." But no one is paying much attention, consumed as Beacon Hill is with more pressing matters such as changing the state constitution to prevent same-sex marriage.
The public doesn't seem that interested, either. People do not connect the concept of ferreting out would-be terrorists with a robust, well-funded local police force. That could be because, despite 9/11 in the United States, 3/11 in Madrid, countless terrorist acts around the world, and ongoing testimony in Washington about official fears of another terrorist strike, many of us still refuse to accept terrorism as a real threat in our own backyard. Intellectually, we know it can happen; we just don't believe it will.
During the panel discussion, the audience was asked who has emergency kits in their homes for use in a terrorist attack. Only a few hands went up. One man described the contents of his kit - water, first aid supplies, batteries, flashlights, and Power bars. They are all useful, he said, for "a hurricane, a tornado, or a terrorist attack."
At Fenway Park, with the field under tarp but the promise of a new baseball season in the air, all three possibilities seemed equally remote. Is the average citizen more inclined to commit money to Red Sox tickets or taxes, so cities and towns can hire more police and firefighters? What a silly question.
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is email@example.com.