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By David Johnston
Published: July 24, 2008

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island: Nearly seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war on terror in this city has evolved into a quiet struggle against a phantom foe, bolstered by an influx of grants and training, while more identifiable crimes - like homicide and robbery - often go unpunished for lack of resources.
Last year, when a sailor slipped over the side of a Turkish merchant ship in the city's port, a Providence police detective assigned to a joint terrorism task force was quickly alerted, reflecting a new vigilance since the Sept. 11 attacks. Alerts also went out to officials at immigration, customs, intelligence and other U.S. agencies, but the case went cold.
Another alarm was sounded over a suspicious man of Indian descent who asked a metals dealer about buying old power tools and hair dryers. The lead petered out when the prospective buyer told a police detective in an interview that he wanted to refurbish the equipment for resale overseas.
Like most of the country's more than 18,000 local law enforcement agencies, the Providence Police Department went to war against terror after Sept. 11, embracing a fundamental shift in its national security role. Police officers everywhere had been shaken by disclosures that the police in Oklahoma, Florida, Maryland and Virginia had stopped four of the Sept. 11 hijackers at various times for traffic violations, but had detected nothing amiss.
Over the years since then, police officials in Providence have joined with the state and U.S. authorities in new information-sharing projects, met with local Muslim leaders and urged their officers to be alert for anything suspicious. Flush with U.S. domestic-security grants, the police department acquired millions of dollars' worth of hardware and trained officers to detect and respond to a terrorist attack.
But local police officials now worry about whether the imperative to protect the United States has blinded the U.S. authorities to other priorities. The department is battling homicides, robberies and gang shootings that the police in a number of cities say are as serious a threat as terrorism.
The Providence police chief, Colonel Dean Esserman, said the U.S. government seemed unable to balance anti-terror efforts and crime fighting. "Our nation, that I love, is like a great giant that can deal with a problem when it focuses on it," said Esserman, who became chief in 2003 when he was hired by Mayor David Cicilline. "But it seems like that giant of a nation is like a Cyclops, with but one eye, that can focus only on one problem at a time."
"The support we had from the federal government for crime fighting seems like it is being diverted to homeland defense," he added. "It may be time to reassess, not how to dampen one for the other, but how not to lose support for one as we address the other."
In Washington, Attorney General Michael Mukasey has defended cuts in criminal justice programs. At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in April, Mukasey responded to a chorus of complaints from Democrats. "We're not pretending that less money is more money," he said. "But we're trying to use it as intelligently as we can."
In a recent interview, Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, cautioned against using U.S. security programs to help pay for day-to-day policing needs. "I don't think we want to take a program designed for one purpose and slowly massage it into another purpose," Chertoff said. "If you are pursuing street crime, I don't think all the organs of national security should be involved in that."
Some officials at the Department of Homeland Security worry about complacency, given that there has not been an attack or concrete evidence of a threat since Sept. 11. These officials say they are convinced that Al Qaeda remains determined to strike inside the United States and will find vulnerabilities if vigilance is relaxed.
In Providence, the police have girded for an attack. Flush with money from the Department of Homeland Security, the police bought a 27-foot patrol boat to monitor the city's port, along with an automated underwater inspection and detection system and a portable small-craft intrusion barrier. At police headquarters, the department improved a video surveillance system, erected 159 concrete posts and 220 feet, or 70 meters, of guardrails around the building's perimeter.
The department acquired a small fleet of sport-utility vehicles 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. With a $5.6 million grant, it is developing a radio system so the police, fire and other emergency responders throughout the region can communicate with one another.
Police officers have enrolled in training that would have been unlikely before Sept. 11. Officers attended a terrorist bombing school in New Mexico, learned how to interpret deceptive responses in interviews, studied unconventional weapons and clandestine explosives laboratories and attended classes in terrorism prevention and suicide bombings.
From 2002 to this year, the department went from zero to more than $11.6 million in total domestic security grants, according to Police Department figures, while other criminal justice grants, like those from Justice Department programs used to pay overtime and hire more officers, dwindled to less than $4.5 million for the same period.
One Justice Department program, the Byrne Justice Action Grant, which helps the police fight violent crime by paying for overtime and other policing costs, has suffered heavy cutbacks. Providence's Byrne grant was reduced to $118,000 this year, from $388,000 in 2007.
The Bush administration has proposed eliminating money for the program in its 2009 budget.
Larry Reall, a 21-veteran of the Providence Police Department, is the liaison to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. He has top-secret security clearance and access to classified computer databases at the local FBI office down the street from City Hall.
In Reall's six years on the job, none of the hundreds of leads he has chased has turned up a terrorist. But he keeps looking, convinced that his work has made the city safer and may have deterred a potential extremist before a threat materialized. "It's not whether we are going to be attacked; that's probably not going to happen," Reall said. "But I don't think that you can let your guard down. Just because nothing has happened doesn't mean that something won't."
Police experts said Providence's experience was similar to that of other cities around the country. Looking back, local law enforcement agencies took on new counterterrorism responsibilities when violent crime rates had plunged to statistical lows.
By 2005 and 2006, while overall crime rates were stable, middle-size and larger cities began to be hit with increases in homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which studies policing issues.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police recently issued a scathing analysis of U.S. spending, saying, "Unfortunately, funding federal homeland security efforts at the expense of state, tribal and local law enforcement agencies weakens rather than enhances our nation's security."
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