The Role of State and Local Governments in Homeland Security

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Since September 11, 2001, homeland security has been seen first and foremost as a job for the federal government, especially in terms of guarding borders, protecting the country’s most valuable infrastructure during heightened alerts, and developing antidotes to possible biological attack. The role of state and local governments as well as the nation’s first responder community has been viewed largely as providing quick reaction and consequence mitigation to any attacks that occur despite the best effort of the federal system to prevent it. Any effort to address preparations within the national capital region or any other metropolitan region needs to begin with some framework for assessing whether this image of the role of local authorities is correct.

In fact, this image is not correct; local governments must do a great deal more than prepare for the consequence management role. In particular, they must also pay a great deal of attention to prevention efforts. To date they have not done nearly enough in this regard.

This argument is not intended as a sweeping indictment of everything that has been done at the state and local level. Consequence management is indeed an important mission. The programs to prepare first responders to deal with chemical, biological, or large-explosive attack date back to 1996 and the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation following the Oklahoma City tragedy. While these programs have not always been efficient or focused, they have improved, and are funded at a level of resources roughly appropriate to the task at hand.

But preventive efforts have been quite lacking, especially outside of New York City. No police forces in the country except New York’s have created more than skeletal counterterrorism units to integrate their normal police work with counterterrorism efforts. The FBI has some capacity for these types of efforts, but it is limited. The nation’s larger cities also need their own dedicated counterterror teams, and the federal government should help fund the creation and operation of such units.