Time to Cooperate

There's nothing we need more right now than teamwork among state, local and federal government. It doesn't come naturally.
January 2002
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Flying recently--and for the first time since September 11--I was ready to be greeted by members of the National Guard at the airport terminal. Sure enough, there they were, stationed right behind the security machine, fingers laid somewhat reassuringly along their trigger guards.

There were multiple ways to read this particular response to the terrorist attacks. The irreverent side of me saw the Guard as nannies for the notoriously sloppy security staff, making sure that the screeners made passengers turn out every pocket and doff every baseball cap before crossing to the inner sanctum of the airport gateways. That way, they could see to it that any screener lapse would result in a shiny Guardsperson boot being applied where it would do the most good.

The side of me that considers government in terms of efficiency and results was slightly perplexed, however: Stationing Guardspeople in the airport would make sense if airports themselves were under attack. But it seemed an out-of-sync response to what actually happened last September. If the soldiers were there just to reassure the traveling public, it was a costly and questionable gesture.

But that's been the hallmark of the intergovernmental response to the terrorist attacks so far: a lot more window dressing, photo ops and soothing rhetoric than genuine substance.

There's little dispute that in the aftermath of terror, intergovernmental cooperation should be at a premium. And it would be a great New Year's resolution if local, state and federal public safety and health officials actually vowed to mend their old turf- jealous ways and start working together for real. But that is proving hard for them to do, and each level deserves its share of the responsibility.

The feds are to be commended on the way they've handled the overseas portion of the effort so far. But local law enforcement officials continue to complain--justifiably--about the federal government's unwillingness to bring them into the domestic anti-terror fold. As several big-city police chiefs have noted, the FBI seems happy to accept information and intelligence from local law enforcement, but they're less interested in giving any back. Local officials can't make much sense of the fragmentary information they're feeding upward, since only the federal investigators are seeing the whole puzzle as it comes together.

Meanwhile, the federal government's regular and maddeningly vague "warnings" about impending terror attacks at home have state and local public safety officials boiling over with frustration. Michael Chitwood, the chief of police in Portland, Maine, describes this exercise as a wholly unhelpful intergovernmental game of "cover your backside."

States have specific gripes as well. Promises of generous federal cash assistance to New York, for example, seem to have evaporated as quickly as the federal budget surplus. And Attorney General John Ashcroft's decision, in the midst of the terror alerts, to stage a constitutional confrontation with Oregon over its assisted-suicide law, was curious at best, and actually harmful to national unity at worst. Only Ashcroft knows why he chose that particular moment to divert attention and energy away from anthrax-loaded mail bombs and on to a wholly unrelated state policy.

But state and local government shouldn't be let off the hook on this one, either. States are still singing the "send us money" blues, with a new tune and with national security as the chorus. Meanwhile, the New York legislature's most sweeping initiative in the wake of September 11 has been a wholesale liberalization of the state's gambling laws (as opposed to, perhaps, a sweeping economic development initiative for lower Manhattan.)

Local public safety officials have also made some high-level missteps. The decision by police in Portland, Oregon, for example, not to cooperate with federal requests for help in contacting and questioning individuals who might have helpful information about domestic terror plots, may have been justified under state law. But why did those local officials feel compelled to announce to the world their plans to resist? Couldn't they have worked something out quietly with the Justice Department, rather than announcing their position on the national news. It wasn't the sort of move that will encourage the FBI to treat local police as full partners in domestic law enforcement.

And so it seems to go. With a boatload of concerns about the safety of domestic food and water supplies, transportation networks, power plants and manufacturing facilities--not to mention the overall health, safety and well-being of the general public and our economy-- there is much work to do in 2002, and at a time of very tight resources all around.

So it's fine to see the National Guard cruising the corridors of the Albany airport, whether to impel screeners to do their jobs, or to just to make me feel better about air travel. But if government really wants to reassure me, it could do that by sending the National Guard back home to do other work, while local, state and federal officials joined forces to do theirs.