Interoperability funds limited

Community Oriented Policing Services Office

Two federal agencies are finishing plans for administering several million dollars earmarked for communications interoperability nationwide, according to a federal official. But he warned that the application process will not be open to all jurisdictions.

The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), housed within the Justice Department, has nearly $66 million for interoperability from the fiscal 2003 omnibus and supplemental spending plans, said Tim Quinn, chief of staff for the COPS Office. He added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, now part of the Homeland Security Department, has "a like amount [of money] that they're going to be administering" for interoperability.

"We're working very closely together to determine how we're going to award those funds in what will probably be ... a targeted solicitation," he said during a Webcast interview aired today by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM).

The Webcast was intended to help municipal officials understand how the COPS Office will administer about $200 million in new grant funding this fiscal year for hiring and overtime. However, the combined interoperability funds appeared to pique the interest of viewers, who asked several questions via the Web.

"It is vital that not only law enforcement but also emergency response, including fire and emergency medical staff, be able to communicate with each other — not only within one given jurisdiction but with others who might be in that particular region where they have mutual aid agreements," Quinn said.

Because the funds are limited, the application process will not be open to the 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, he said. The awarding agencies will draw up a list of cities or regions that will be invited to apply for grants. Quinn said FEMA is also asking governors to select jurisdictions and invite them to apply. He said they want to ensure the projects described in applications are realistic and able to benefit from the additional funding.

"We don't want to spread the money out too far so that it will not have an impact," he said. "But we want to make sure we're getting those funds to as many people as we can get them to ... in a way that's helpful and supportive of the technology programs that may already be underway out there to address issues of interoperability."

Quinn said the program might be finalized by the time the USCM has its annual conference in Denver in early June. He said his office also provides a step-by-step technology guide to help law enforcement agencies ask vendors the right questions before purchasing equipment and systems.

He added that there's another $188 million within the COPS budget earmarked for technology that is not part of these interoperability grants.

The COPS Office, credited with hiring nearly 100,000 police and school resource officers and providing training and technology equipment to law enforcement agencies, has been widely hailed by state and local officials as an important law enforcement funding resource.

But much to the disappointment of state and local officials, the Bush administration has steadily reduced funding for it and several other law enforcement programs — to the point of elimination.

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