US police given billions from Homeland Security for 'tactical' equipment
With little oversight, federal agency awarded billions to local police for spending on drones, drugs, vehicles and 'animals and plants', among eligible purchases
Spencer Ackerman in New York
20 August 2014
Billions of federal dollars have been spent since September 11 on purchasing modern and often military-grade equipment for state and local police. But there is little that limits the use of that hardware to counter-terrorism purposes, and oversight of the spending is difficult, according to federal sources and documents reviewed by the Guardian.
In the wake of the Ferguson protests, much attention has gone to the Department of Defense's program to supply surplus military equipment to police. But that program is eclipsed in size and scope by grant money from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which enables purchases of similar "tactical" equipment.
Under existing federal requirements, police departments and state law enforcement agencies do not need to spend much of that money on preventing terrorism or preparing for disaster relief.
The Department of Homeland Security would not say whether it plans to review any of its grant programs in light of the controversy surrounding the deployment of military-style gear on the streets of Ferguson.  One of its main congressional overseers told the Guardian he plans to "continue" scrutiny of the grants, while praising them as necessary.
During the current fiscal year, DHS plans to award $1.6bn in grant money for state, local and tribal agencies, mostly to aid them with counterterrorism, border security and disaster preparedness, it announced last month.  By contrast, the Defense Department's "1033" program to transfer surplus military gear gave out less than $500m  worth of equipment in fiscal 2013.
Two grant programs in particular, awarded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), provide the lion's share of the DHS money: the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative.
The former program provides federal dollars to states, while the latter funds cities and metro areas directly. The State Homeland Security Program will disburse over $401m this year for "planning, organization, equipment, training and exercise needs" relevant to preventing and responding to "acts of terrorism and other catastrophic events".
The Urban Areas Security Initiative focuses on the "unique planning, organization, equipment training and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density urban areas" vulnerable to terrorism and other catastrophes. It will spend $587m this year, both in cities proven to be terrorist targets such as New York ($179m) and Washington DC ($53m) and those that are not, such as Charlotte, North Carolina ($3m) and Sacramento, California ($1m). A 2012 report by Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican on the homeland security committee, calculated that the program had given the program at giving out over $7.1bn over the previous nine years.
Officials charged with overseeing the programs say it is difficult to directly trace back to the DHS programs the purchase of Bearcat armored vehicles, sound cannons, and other tactical gear used by Ferguson law enforcement and similar police departments. The listed phone number for Missouri's administrator of homeland-security grants was out of service, and neither the administrator nor his deputy returned email and phone messages.
But the value of DHS grants to Missouri and the greater St Louis metropolitan area runs in the millions.
DHS statistics show that Missouri is due for $3.98m under the the State Homeland Security Program, with another $3m coming specifically to the St Louis area, which includes Ferguson, under the Urban Areas Security Initiative. (Another $1m is slated this year for Kansas City.) Between 2003 and 2012, the St Louis area received some $81m in Urban Areas Security Initiative money.
State and local police are under no obligation to spend the vast majority of that money for the counterterrorism or disaster-preparedness purposes underlying the creation of the grant programs.
Under a 2007 law, the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act,  "not less than 25%" of the total money for the two programs must be "used for law enforcement terrorism prevention activities".
There are few other restrictions. State and local authorities are not supposed to use the money to buy land or construct buildings, but the law provides for exceptions. "Not more than 25%" of money under the two grant programs can be spent on "overtime and backfill costs" or other personnel affairs.
The 21 acceptable categories of authorized equipment eligible for purchase under homeland security grants -- from information technology to personal protective equipment to "animals and plants" -- cover a broad range of gear. They run the gamut from animal restraint tools, small surveillance drones, "explosive entry" equipment, the sedative Lorazepam, the cyanide antidote (and psychoactive recreational drug) Amyl Nitrite, and blast-resistant garbage cans. 
Coburn's 2012 report found that DHS grant money helped police purchase armored vehicles such as the the Bearcats now on the streets of Ferguson for departments in Fargo, North Dakota; Syracuse, New York; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Clovis, California.
Officials with knowledge of the programs say it is difficult to keep track on how the money is spent. "From an oversight perspective, DHS grant programs are pretty much a mess," said a congressional aide who was not cleared to speak with the media.
"They don't know what's been bought with the money, how that equipment has been used, or whether it's made anyone measurably any safer."
A 2012 audit  prepared for the DHS inspector general found that Fema, which administers the over-arching grant program to which the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative belong, lacks a clear understanding of its own system. The program, which distributed more than $11bn between 2003 and 2011, exists with little oversight, the report said.
"Fema did not have a system in place to determine the extent that Homeland Security Grant Program funds enhanced the states' capabilities to prevent, deter, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies before awarding more funds to the states," the audit found.
At a press conference on Monday, President Barack Obama said he was open to reviewing "how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they're purchasing is stuff that they actually need, because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred."
Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesman, defended the department's grant programs, and did not, when asked, indicate the department planned a review.
"Under the State Homeland Security and Urban Areas Security Initiative Grant Programs, local governments and municipalities have the authority to determine their needs and purchase equipment as prioritized by the State Administrative Agency (SAA) and the urban area," Boogaard told the Guardian.
"The SAA is also the only entity eligible to apply for these funds. Fema's annual grant guidance details specific guidelines and eligible expenses under each grant. Local jurisdictions can apply for grant funding through their State Administrative Agency (SAA), which is the agency responsible for managing and applying for DHS preparedness grant funds and is Fema's grantee. That said, appropriations law prohibits the use of DHS grant dollars for the purchase of goods or services from other federal departments or agencies."
Senator Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the homeland security committee, said the grants "provide critical resources to ensure that state and local emergency management agencies and first responders are prepared to effectively respond to instances of terrorism and other disasters -- both natural and manmade."
In a statement to the Guardian, Carper said his committee "will continue to closely examine the Department of Homeland Security's grant programs and its implementation in communities across the nation as part of our ongoing oversight efforts".