The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office could lose out on all or part of a $350,000 federal Homeland Security grant because its SWAT team has been disbanded, according to state and Valley grant administrators.
But Larry Black, chief of enforcement for the sheriff’s office, said the agency’s grant request will not be affected by the SWAT decision because the agency still is able to deliver vital resources in the event of a terrorist attack.
The federal money is to help fund police and firefighters, who would be the first at the scene in the event of a terrorist attack, Black said. Even without a SWAT team, the sheriff’s office has an emergency response unit that would be called in to assist in the event of a terror attack, he said.
In December, Sheriff Joe Arpaio abruptly disbanded the SWAT team, saying it was part of a routine reorganization of his office.
The cost of maintaining a full-time SWAT team was one of the issues cited for scrapping the old unit. The sheriff’s office is training a part-time SWAT team that does not include members from the old squad.
The $350,000 federal grant is available through the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative, which was established to help local agencies acquire equipment and training to respond to terrorism. Those grants are meant to enhance existing capabilities of local agencies such as police and fire departments — not to pay for training new teams, said Mark Howard, the state’s homeland security grants administrator.
While not having a SWAT team does not disqualify the sheriff’s office from receiving the money, it does mean the agency has less to offer when regional terrorism response plans are drawn up and the money is doled out, said Cmdr. T.J. Martin of the Phoenix Police Department, the lead agency in processing the urban grant applications.
The strategy in the last couple of years has been to develop a rapid response team that would draw technical expertise and equipment from different agencies in the Valley to deal with a terrorist attack, Martin said.
Discussions with the sheriff’s office have centered on allocating about $350,000 to the agency to enhance its SWAT and bomb disposal capabilities, Martin said.
Members of the disbanded sheriff’s SWAT team had specialized training in dealing with explosives and chemical devices, in addition to traditional functions of the tactical unit that qualified them to respond to terrorist incidents. Now that the team has been disbanded, the sheriff’s office will have to show the agency still has expertise in those areas to qualify for the federal funds, Martin said.
The sheriff’s office has yet to submit an application for the money, he said.
"If they don’t have a SWAT team, then we can’t outfit them with any equipment" for the tactical unit, Martin said. "If they can assist with the larger strategy and they actually have the manpower that are trained up to do the job we need them to do in line with the regional strategy, that’s great. But if they don’t, we can’t outfit them."
How much of the federal grant money, if any, the sheriff’s office will qualify for is difficult to determine, Martin said. The regional response plan has been developed, and each agency submits grant requests based on the personnel and expertise it can deliver, he said.
Once the requests are submitted, committees will weigh the competing proposals and allocate the money to the agencies that can best meet the tactical needs as identified in the regional plan. It will be up to the sheriff’s office to prove it has trained people in place who can deliver the skills needed as part of the regional response team, Martin said.
"The ball is in the (sheriff’s office’s) court," he said. "If they want to play, they’re going to have to come forward with a presentation and convince everybody on that steering committee that they’ve got the ability now to do what needs to be done with the people that have been trained up to the level of expertise that we need."
Howard, the state grants administrator, said federal rules mandate that the money be used for terrorism-related equipment and training, not simply to pad traditional law enforcement budgets. The money could not be used to train the sheriff’s new SWAT team, but only to provide additional training or equipment to a team that is in place to help it respond in the event of a terrorist attack, Howard said. That might include the release of biological agents, a bombing or a barricade situation in which a terrorist is threatening to set off explosives, he said.
The sheriff’s office probably would not qualify for money for its SWAT team, since a trained team is not in place, Howard said. It could apply for grant funds for other functions that would assist in responding to a terror attack.
Black said the decision to disband the SWAT team should not affect the grant proposal because those officers were only a small part of the agency’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack.
"It really has nothing to do with the SWAT team," Black said. "The SWAT team is really only nine people of a 180-man emergency response team that we have. So I don’t see any draw to that one way or another. SWAT is just a very small piece of an emergency response team that would respond."
The sheriff ’s office does have a trained bomb technician, and its deputies have received training and equipment to deal with chemical or biological attacks, Black said.