ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A month after the Pulse nightclub massacre, law enforcement leaders told a congressional committee in Washington on Friday that the Orlando area’s tens of millions of tourists should be a bigger factor in determining which metro areas get federal money for preventing and responding to terrorist threats.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina and Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said that central Florida had missed out on needed training and opportunities to purchase equipment because Orlando for the past two years has been left off the list of metro areas receiving funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). The program has distributed $8.2 billion to metro areas in the past decade.
A lack of funding has prevented the expansion of a video surveillance program in Orlando’s tourist corridor, as well as forced a reduction in the number of intelligence analysts at a center made up of central Florida law enforcement agencies, Demings said.
The Orlando metro area, with a population of 2.2 million residents, gets 66 million visitors a year, the most of any tourist destination in the United States, according to Orlando tourism officials. Past appeals to get Orlando back on the list have failed.
The law enforcement chiefs also asked that coastal Brevard and Volusia counties be included with Orlando in calculating the funding. Brevard County is home to the Kennedy Space Center, and Volusia County is home to Daytona Beach and its racetrack.
“One creditable attack in central Florida to a theme park will be disastrous for our economy,” Demings said. “There is a need in this country to have an overall increase in UASI funding, or at the very least a redistribution of UASI funding across the nation.”
Past funding has supported training on everything from hazardous materials response, bomb detection and nuclear-material detection, Mina said, and lack of funding last year prevented his agency from purchasing a new tactical robot and refurbishing a bomb robot for the SWAT team. If his SWAT team members had possessed thermal imaging equipment, they would have been able to see where gunman Omar Mateen was behind walls at the Pulse nightclub, he said.
Mateen opened fire at Pulse on June 12, leaving 49 victims dead and injuring 53 people in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. In calls with the police after the shooting began, he pledged his allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State group.
“The paradigms of traditional terror attacks are changing,” Mina said. “Based on the horrific event we experienced at the Orlando Pulse nightclub … these attacks are becoming more frequent at venues identified as soft targets.”
Orlando received about $45 million in the decade after the security initiative started in 2004, but that funding ended in 2014, and Orlando was left off the list in 2015 and 2016 because of changes in how the funds are distributed based on rankings.
Brian Kamieo, an official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, explained that rankings are determined by a metro area’s relative risk of having a terrorist threat because of past plots or a known presence; whether its infrastructure is a valuable target and what the consequence of an attack would be on the population, economy or national security.
In 2015, the 28 highest-ranked metro areas were given funds but Orlando wasn’t because it ranked No. 32 on the list. In 2016, 29 of the highest-ranked metro areas were given funds but Orlando missed out because it was ranked No. 34, Kamioe said.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, who represents Florida’s 7th district and led the hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he wants a reassessment of how the funding is allocated, adding that the Pulse nightclub shooting last month showed Orlando is susceptible to a terrorist attack.
Mica complained a billion dollars in funds hadn’t been spent, but Kamioe explained the money is already budgeted for projects for which communities will eventually be reimbursed.
“What we have to do is make sure we don’t leave any American city or community behind,” Mica said. “We aren’t getting it right. We are not getting it right.”
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