If you've been to a mall recently, you'll be glad to know that the Department of Homeland Security has got your back.
Or to be more precise, they've thrown a few bones to the Monroe County Sheriff's Department to do the job. As the holiday shopping season was reaching its peak in mid-December, the CountyLegislature approved accepting a $50,000 grant from something known as the "Buffer Zone Protection Program." According to the legislation adopted by the Lej, the program's goal is "to prevent terrorist attacks and protect critical infrastructure facilities."
Apparently the feds consider Marketplace Mall a "critical infrastructure facility."
On its way toward the floor of the full legislature, the bill stopped in the Public Safety Committee, where Democrat (and incoming Minority Leader) Carla Palumbo wanted to know more about the program and its seemingly unusual choice of locations.
Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn wasn't able to tell her much, other than to point out that the federal government --- not his department --- was calling the shots.
"This project is part of the Department of Homeland Security," he said. "They went around and identified soft targets in our region and across the country and as a result of that came to us as a law enforcement agency to see if we wanted to apply for a grant, which we did."
Asked Palumbo: "How did you select Marketplace Mall as the location for this sort of project?"
O'Flynn: "It wasn't for us to decide. The federal government decided for us and asked us if we wanted to get into a strategy to address the issue of Marketplace Mall being identified as being a soft target."
Palumbo: "I guess out of all the things that could happen in a community, it doesn't strike me that Marketplace Mall would be the one we would be the most concerned about. There just seem to be a lot of other high-level areas --- the Water Authority comes to mind --- just other things other than a shopping mall. But maybe they were able to give you more of an explanation. That's really what I'm getting at."
O'Flynn: "It really was at their request. They identified these areas. Marketplace Mall was one of them. Eastview Mall was another, in OntarioCounty. The Galleria Mall in Buffalo was also identified. It's something the federal government did that we were offered the opportunity to fund some security for that venue."
Palumbo: "So they were essentially looking at mall sites, or shopping sites where there's a high concentration of people?"
O'Flynn: "I believe that was the issue. I believe that's what they ended up doing. Again, this was something that the federal government did and it came to us with the option to fund."
In other words, as critics of Homeland Security spending have been complaining, the program is little more than traditional pork-barrel spending wrapped in the guise of national security. Of course, no one expects the Sheriff's Department to turn down free money from Washington, and given the county's budget constraints, the money will pay for some useful things. Translation: it's the good kind of pork.
"What we envision doing with the grant," O'Flynn told the Public Safety Committee, "is purchasing Jersey barriers, a Morris capture station, and an X-ray device for use in the mall." Jersey barriers are those concrete slabs that can be arranged to control the flow of traffic. A capture station is a glorified computer terminal connected to the department's main network. It will allow deputies to process anyone they might arrest on site (and check for a criminal record).
No one seems to know whether Greece Ridge or the Medley Centre received similar assistance. Federal DHS spokeswoman Anne Voigt told City Newspaper that was up to individual states.
"We provide the funds to the state and then the state decides who receives them" based on a priority plan the state drafts, she said. "For reasons of security, the states don't give out that kind of information."
On the contrary, contends New York State Office of Homeland Security spokesperson Amy Fires, the state acts as nothing more than a pass-through agency for this grant.
"NYS OHS did not pick the sites for BZPP monies, the Federal DHS did. NYS OHS did not prioritize which sites were chosen," she wrote in an email. "We gave the same amount equally to all sites that were chosen. NYS OHS had to give the monies equally to all recipients."
In a follow-up phone message she added, "We do not give out the sites listed that received the BZPP funds due to op sec reasons."
Corporal John Helfer, spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department, confirmed that the decision to protect Marketplace was made at the federal level, and that it was probably based on the mall's relatively high concentration of people. Helfer also had no information on whether the other malls would benefit.