After a gunman opened fire in a Southern California synagogue on Passover, killing a woman and wounding a man, his 8-year-old niece and the rabbi leading the service, the inevitable question was asked: Could anything have been done to stop the violence?
Reporters Don Thompson and Adam Beam in Sacramento and Julie Watson in San Diego combined to report exclusively that the synagogue itself had recognized security deficiencies and even gotten a state grant to address them.
But it hadn’t spent the money.
Their reporting started two days after the violence at the Poway synagogue, when the California Legislative Jewish Caucus announced it was seeking $15 million to bolster security at religious and other nonprofit institutions. Beam decided to search the state Office of Emergency Services (OES) database to see if it had awarded any such grants to Poway. He found one in 2010 and another in 2018 but no details.
Thompson pursued that thread with officials who administer the grants while Watson went to synagogue leaders. An OES spokesman acknowledged that while the synagogue was approved for a $150,000 grant it hadn’t used the money.
Thompson requested copies of the grant application to get details on the specifics of the security needs and he and Watson also sought to determine why the money sat unspent. Thompson was told he would get the documents the next day but then department lawyers intervened and said the documents required a public records request and that it would be a week before an initial response was provided.
Thompson worked his contacts in OES while Watson reached out to the rabbi who oversees security grants for the Poway synagogue and more than 200 other Chabad organizations in California. Together, they were able to determine the 2018 request included money to increase security around the front door the shooter used to enter the building. The grant for fencing, doors and cameras was awarded in September but bureaucratic back-and-forth delayed the money being disbursed until late March. The rabbi told Watson there simply wasn’t time to use the money before the shooting occurred.
The security funding was approved in September but the money was delayed until late March – there simply wasn’t time to use the money before the shooting, Rabbi Simcha Backman told the AP.
Thompson interviewed lawmakers who said as legislators consider increasing funding for the security programs they also must ensure the money is awarded expeditiously. Thompson also analyzed seven years of grants and determined nearly 80% went to Jewish-affiliated organizations. The legislative Jewish caucus’ vice chairman provided assurance that if approved the $15 million will be intended for institutions of all faiths.
For giving AP an exclusive follow-up to a crime that generated global attention, Thompson, Watson and Beam win this week’s Best of the States.