While DC Metro Police Face Cutbacks, Federal Anti-Terror Funds Flow

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Metro's board of directors is scheduled to cast its final vote on the transit system's budget this morning, and that may include a cut for its Police Department - the first such reduction in at least six years. But while Metro's crime fighting resources might be going down, its budget for terrorism prevention is going up.

A person was stabbed here at the Petworth Metro Station, just weeks before Metro announced its random bag check program. (Photo by David Schultz/WAMU)

Late in November, on a Sunday evening, news broke that a person was violently attacked at the Petworth Metro Station. The victim had reportedly been stabbed in the throat. Just a few weeks later, there was another big Metro security story leading the news: Metro was going to start doing random bag searches.

Providing local security on a tight budget

The random bag checks and the stabbing at Petworth are perfect illustrations of the different kinds of threats Metro is dealing with, even as it tries to do more with less.

"Should we ever want to have more police officers? I think every chief of police would say, 'Yeah, bring me more police officers,'" said Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn. "But, in light of the budget, we have to do everything within our means."

One way Taborn is providing security is by collaborating with other law enforcement agencies in the D.C. region.

"This system belongs to everybody in the region, it's not just a Metro situation. So if a bus is patrolling in Prince George's County, in the District of Columbia, if their police officers could hop on the bus, say hello to the bus operator, ride it a block. Or if they're patrolling in and around our stations, in the parking lots, if they could swing through," he said.

Taborn said his counterparts from across the region told him they will be able to help out. And in that, Taborn is very lucky. Police departments across the country are facing serious budget cuts.

Jon Shane, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York, said the recession has brought on an unprecedented downsizing of state and local governments, and that's fundamentally changing the way law enforcement works. "More with less" is a common phrase heard in police stations everywhere.

Federal funding for law enforcement

But what's the role of the federal government in all of this? Not much, Shane said.

"We kind of frown on the fact that we might even suggest that there's a national police force of any kind. The federal government's not going to say, 'Take our money and do what you want with it,'" he said.

But there is one tiny corner of the federal government designed to do exactly that: give money to local law enforcement agencies. Bernard Melekian runs the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, also known as COPS.

"In my 37-year career in law enforcement, I've never seen layoffs and resource reductions at the local level that have occurred in the last two or three years," he said.

And yet, Melekian's office can only do so much. His office's budget this year is around $250 million, only a quarter of what it was in 2009. Compare that with the Department of Homeland Security's Preparedness Grant Program, which gives out more than $2 billion a year to local agencies for terrorism prevention and response.

Melekian said, ultimately, this can help communities too -- because officers on patrol looking for bombs also deter other types of crime.

"Fighting crime and fighting terrorism are not mutually exclusive," he said.

That's the philosophy Metro has adopted as well. While money for crime fighting dwindles, Metro's status as a high-value terrorist target opens the door to a wealth of Homeland Security dollars. DHS is paying for Metro to beef up its chemical detection capabilities and install a new air vent system that can detect an intrusion.

It's unclear, though, if air vent detection can also help prevent someone from stealing your iPod or from stabbing you in the throat.

Police presence

In the case of the stabbing in the Petworth station, Metro won't release any information, so the public doesn't know if the suspect was identified or caught -- or if the victim even survived.

Six months later, crime is still on the minds of Metro riders. Teri Lott said she actually witnessed a recent assault.

"The other night I was at Deanwood, and some young kids beat up an old lady and the cops came," Lott said.

Despite that, she still feels safe riding Metro because she sees more officers on the platforms and in the trains, she said. But while Lott thinks those officers are there to protect her from being robbed or assaulted, there's a good chance they're actually there looking for potential terrorists. It's the difference between Homeland Security and hometown security.