The Washington State Patrol is accomplishing a $41 million radio upgrade by hitching its wagon to a federal program that is described in a new federal audit as having poor oversight of money and an uncertain future.
The Department of Justice has worked 13 years to upgrade its law enforcement radios, starting with a pilot project in Washington and Oregon. But the department’s inspector general questions what the agency has to show for some $356 million spent.
The Obama administration’s budget calls for pulling the plug at least for now on a planned national expansion of the program.
Implications for the State Patrol are unclear. The halt in expansion doesn’t shut down the Washington and Oregon network that’s being linked up with the patrol.
“The audit is very scathing on the system build-out as a whole,” said Bob Schwent, commander of the State Patrol’s electronic services division. But “the system out here actually is working well and continues to work well. It’s just that they’re not going to fund any expansion of it.”
One state lawmaker says the audit raises “serious questions” about the State Patrol’s move onto a system controlled by the federal government. Rep. Reuven Carlyle said he doubts a program that isn’t being expanded nationally can survive.
It “seems a more likely approach would be a phone call sometime from the feds saying that they are canceling the program, or offering it to the state for them to maintain,” said Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat.
Schwent doesn’t rule out the possibility.
“If this portion out here for some reason were de-funded, we’ve already taken steps that we could continue operating,” he said. But he acknowledged: “We’d have some reductions in what we can do and how we continue to do it.”
The state must comply by Jan. 1, 2013, with a federal mandate to free up space on the radio spectrum for more users. It’s the same deadline Pierce County faced when it persuaded voters last fall to raise their sales tax to pay for fire and police radio upgrades.
The State Patrol sought and won legislative approval for its own upgrade that meets the federal mandate while also moving to a digital system to prevent a loss of radio reception coverage.
A loss of coverage could open up dead zones where state troopers out in the field couldn’t talk with each other or with dispatchers during emergencies.
The Department of Justice started the upgrade in Washington but soon rejected using it as a template for national expansion. As described in the audit, the department decided while the design met “current communication requirements,” it might not handle “significant advances in new technologies.”
The department also had concerns about the cost of a lack of competition, according to the audit. The Northwest system depends on the proprietary technology of one company, Motorola Solutions.
The State Patrol signed a $26 million no-bid contract with Motorola, saying that partnering with the federal system was some $12 million cheaper than building its own.
Carlyle is a critic of the deal, saying even if it saves money in the short run, it commits the state to “monopoly pricing.”
Much of the January audit focuses on problems with expansion.
It says the Integrated Wireless Network, or IWN, is falling short of its goals to replace the department’s obsolete technology, consolidate systems used by various federal agents and ensure security.
The delay is “potentially jeopardizing the lives of law enforcement and emergency personnel and the people they have sworn to protect,” it says. Those problems are less pressing in the Northwest where upgrades are in place.
Auditors also took aim at the program’s oversight, saying “it is impossible to determine the true cost of the IWN program.”
The department’s formal response to the audit says no money is spent without its approval and oversight. It says that in the Northwest and some other places, it has “achieved significant improvements in the wireless communications capabilities delivered to our law enforcement agents.”