Where the rainy-day money went


This very solid article by David Johnston of the New York Times (from which the above photo also comes) puts the best old-fashioned reporting virtues to work telling a subtle, important and poignant story. It focuses on the police force of Providence, Rhode Island, and the massive investments the force made after 9/11 on counter-terrorism equipment and doctrine.

The department acquired a small fleet of S.U.V.’s for emergency response, a bomb containment vehicle, a bomb response canine vehicle, mobile data terminals, scuba gear, trauma kits, underwater camera and video gear and special protective suits for all officers.

All of that money sunk into staving off a catastrophic attack. An attack that hasn’t come. Meanwhile the money and most of the equipement can’t be used for the day-to-day challenges of “ordinary” police work, which is no less life-or-death in its importance.

Multiply Providence’s predicament by thousands of communities across the United States and, indeed, to some extent around the world, including here in Canada.

Johnston’s article is smart enough to recognize that the existence of a debate — and, indeed, of a great big problem — does not necessarily prove the existence of a bad guy, or even of a mistake. He interviews the guy in charge of anti-terrorism liaison for the Providence P.D., who defends all the spending: “I don’t think that you can let your guard down. Just because nothing has happened doesn’t mean that something won’t.”

And he interviews the deputy police chief, who has to run a force even on the days when jihadis don’t come knocking and who can’t afford to pay for overtime: “We know what our problems are. If you say to us the money can only be used for homeland security or equipment, it really limits how effective we can be in fighting crime.”

I’m not recommending this story for a Pulitzer, but simply as an example of a reporter’s good day or so at the office. It identifies a problem, resists cheap point-scoring, depicts policy dilemmas as human challenges. Journalism too often denies complexity. This story doesn’t.


Where the rainy-day money went

  1. Better have it and not need it then need it and not have it… besides, is looks cool.

  2. I have to agree. Excellent story. Doesn’t play
    the blame game or point to answers that aren’t.

    Now if they can arrange for your basic b&e to
    trigger an Orange Alert they may have something
    to work with.
    Given the history of Orange Alerts,it’s something to think about.

  3. The concept of nuance is all but lost in this day and age… nice to see someone actually attempt to delve into complexity.

    If only we could get that in our day-to-day news coverage on TV and radio… not just re-hashing announcements and press releases. It would also be nice if media recognized that balance and good reporting does *NOT* come from giving equal time to uber-partisans from each side, rather it comes from doing research and finding the truth.

  4. Not a bad article, but it could have been written in 2003. It’s been nearly 7 years (!) since 9/11 and Homeland Security is still shedding money. I don’t doubt that city police forces need emergency response training and equipment (but didn’t they already have SWAT teams?); but the main budget of Homeland Security was wasted on weird patronage ploys. When I was studying in California a few years ago (2005), I was in touch with some “national security” people (ex-CIA types) who were literally brainstorming for ways to milk the terror teat. (We came up with an idea for OCR for Arabic handwriting . . . went nowhere fast as no one read Arabic.) Seems to me these federal Homeland Security subsidies would be better off helping local police fight crime, now that the CIA-FBI-NSA axis has pretty much shown they have Al Qaeda at bay. (Ironically, Providence is a big urban renewal success story, mainly because their Giuliani-style mayor is an ex-mafioso.)

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