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Terrorism: The Role of Local and State Police Agencies

Author: Edward J. Tully and E.L. (Bud) Willoughby, May 2002


It has been more than six months since the attack by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the weapons-grade anthrax mailings to members of Congress and the media. The initial horror, grief, and concern of our citizens is being replaced by an understanding that the reality of our continuing war against terrorists is going to produce more casualties, costs, and additional attacks on Americans both here and abroad. However, it seems clear that the American public is willing to pay these costs and accept casualties in order to protect our way of life from destruction by those individuals who completely reject our values, our way of life, and our code of honor.

The current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the anti-government narco-terrorists in several South American countries, the spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism, and our own home-grown terrorist groups strongly suggest that North Americans will face the threat of terrorism for some time to come. Once on the wane, terrorism has regained significance as a tool to force political change through social disruption. We now fully realize that dedicated terrorists, operating in a target-rich environment, using rather simple means can cause huge economic dislocations. These losses could force governments to overreact in ways that cause democratic institutions to suborn the values they were designed to protect. That terrorism always fails in the long run is a matter of history. However, in the short run, the damage that terrorism can inflict on a high technology society is significant.

While it is reasonable to expect that desperate, evil, or deranged people will continue to use terrorism as a means to call attention to their cause, it is well to remember that none of their individual acts will cause irreparable economic harm to either the United States or Canada. However, if we overreact to terrorist activities we could destroy many of the values for which we stand. No matter how tough, or draconian, the measures used by governments to combat the terrorists become, these measures will never successfully deter all terrorists. This can be validly inferred from the inability of a variety of governments, from democratic to tyrannical, to stop the terrorism currently being employed by radical Islamic and other revolutionary groups throughout the world.

The perils we North Americans face in combating the terrorists surface when we curtail our own freedom and values in doing so. For us to adopt the tactics of the terrorist to combat terrorism is fraught with peril. A perfect example of this can be found in the current conflict between Palestinians and Israel. In this conflict the high moral ground, respect for justice and law, and concern for innocents does not rest with either side. Consequently, both sides seem doomed to have a future filled with violence, hatred, and misery. This should be a convincing lesson to us that our greatest danger lies not with the terrorist, or their acts of terrorism, but with our own desires for dominance and revenge at any cost.

Current Anti-Terrorism Efforts

There are four major aspects involved in dealing with terrorist organizations. The first involves gathering raw intelligence on the terrorist organization's structure, its members, and its plans (or potential) for the use of violence. Second, what measures can be taken to counter, or thwart, terrorist activities? Third, how can the damage caused by terrorists be minimized through rapid response and containment of the damage? The fourth aspect is the apprehension and conviction of individual terrorists and the dismantling of their organizations.

The problems caused by terrorism directed toward the United States are varied and complex. This raises the question as to how the different levels of government are going to direct their resources to counter the threat. Given the suddenness and horrific consequences of the recent attacks, it is understandable why some of our initial responses, made in haste, have produced mixed results. For example, the Treasury Department's and other intelligence agencies' use of economic and electronic measures against al-Qaeda have been very effective. Military actions in Afghanistan have been successful in destroying the al-Qaeda/Taliban organizations but, as expected, have raised a host of other problems for us consistent with rebuilding this war-torn nation. These internal problems in the Afghanistan region will take additional time, effort, and money to resolve. It will also take time and considerable effort to prevent al-Qaeda from re-grouping and once again becoming a dangerous worldwide terrorist organization.

Recent efforts to increase airport security (and other transportation centers) through the use of the National Guard and increased passenger inspections, leaves much to be desired. Recently, a host of measures designed to increase airline security have been implemented. While it cannot be proved that these measures were a waste of time, the thought does cross your mind as you are subjected to these new measures. The Department of Transportation suggests that a new airport security force of up to 70,000 members will vastly improve air safety when implemented later this year. Perhaps so! One could more easily argue that had airport security been turned over to local police agencies--with appropriate funding--the problems associated with airline security would have been solved in short order, months ago.

The establishment of an Office of Homeland Security to coordinate the activities of federal, state, and local organizations was a concept that looked good on paper. However, considering prior stonewalling activities of the federal bureaucracy--and Congress--in most previous efforts to reorganize and streamline departments, to consolidate jurisdictions, or to participate in joint investigative efforts, one can only conclude that any change will be difficult to accomplish. While the Office of Homeland Security may be a noble concept it is losing its initial moral authority and has little to show for its efforts thus far. Given the fact that it has taken Homeland Security more than six months to devise a simple color-coded national alert system one is persuaded that the objectives of Homeland Security are mostly rhetoric.

Other inexplicable recent actions (or proposals) by the federal government include the failure to disburse several hundred million dollars in aid to state and local departments for emergency equipment by the Department of Justice; the elimination of the popular COPS program; and a proposed transfer of those funds to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This funding directs FEMA to become the lead federal agency in the management of national emergencies. So, instead of increasing the number of police officers we will have fewer; public safety organizations will have less equipment than they need; and a undistinguished, inexperienced agency is now in charge of coordinating and dispensing federal assistance to state and local police departments.

The concept of a Joint Terrorism Task Force with local, state, and federal officers working together in a region is a good, proven method of law enforcement. Prior to September 11th the Federal Bureau of Investigation operated about 45 of these task forces. After September 11th, the Attorney General indicated plans to establish more of these task forces under the management of the United States Attorney's Office. Without casting aspersions on the law enforcement management abilities of the various United States Attorneys, it would seem their office would be more effective as advisors to a task force as opposed to managers of these task forces. All factors considered, this proposal should be reconsidered both in light of task force management and the necessity to expend manpower and resources in areas that have little potential to either experience or spawn terrorism.

Several states have established a law enforcement position designed to coordinate public safety efforts in the prevention, preparation, and investigation of a variety of terrorist attacks. This is an excellent idea and deserves to be expanded to other high-vulnerability states. Identifying potential targets, planning for emergency response, coordinating the efforts of the various public health organizations, purchasing needed emergency equipment for police and fire departments are all valuable tasks to be completed. These efforts to coordinate and properly respond to emergencies such as a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster, are well worth the efforts being expended.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Customs, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Border Patrol have all stepped up efforts to more closely examine visitors to the United States, cargo entering our ports, and illegal immigrants. For the most part, their newly developed strategies are well thought out and effective. However, the arrest and detention of some 1,200 aliens, who were in the United States illegally or had overstayed their visas, is particularly troubling. It is not the arrest or deportation of the illegal aliens that is troubling, but the allegation that some have been mistreated while incarcerated or denied legal assistance.

The Department of Justice and INS have supervised these incarcerations and the subsequent handling of appropriate charges and disposition of the cases. It is the same Department of Justice that authorized the interview of some 5,000 men of Middle Eastern descent throughout the United States based on their ethic background as indicated by their visas. Somehow it stretches the imagination that "profiling" was not involved in both cases. This charge of "profiling" by the Department of Justice is interesting. Had similar charges been leveled at a local or a state police agency, the matter would have been aggressively pursued by the Department as either a criminal or civil matter. This hypocrisy and the treatment of some detainees through the auspices of the Department of Justice, and the INS, are not consistent with the values of the United States.

Consequently, state and local authorities should vigorously resist current INS suggestions to authorize local police to arrest illegal aliens. It must be viewed as nothing more than a political ploy to shift the "monkey" from the back of the INS to local officials. It is a problem created and sustained by the actions of the federal government and the solution must remain with Congress and those federal agencies responsible for immigration enforcement. It is also time that "profiling" be returned to its place as a common sense technique of law enforcement. No one in law enforcement supports the racially motivated officer nor should anyone support baseless charges of racism leveled at law enforcement by those who are politically motivated.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has more experience in dealing with terrorists than any other government agency. The sale and distribution of illicit narcotics is a primary source of funding for many South American, European, and Far Eastern terrorist organizations. For some inexplicable reason, the DEA is not a major player in the war on terrorism. If this is a correct assessment, then DEA should be brought to the table immediately.

The Role of Local and State Police Agencies

The defense of the United States and Canada against acts of international terrorists rests primarily with the law enforcement and intelligence communities. In the United States, federal law enforcement and national security agencies have assumed the lead role in anti-terrorism investigations. As a result of various federal statutes and enormous technological abilities, federal agencies are responsible for gathering raw intelligence from a variety of technical and human resources, both at home and abroad. In addition, these agencies are charged with the prevention of terrorist attacks and/or the investigation of such attacks should they occur. The Department of Justice is responsible for prosecution of those individuals involved in either the conspiracy or the actual attack. While there are many state statutes that cover terrorists' crimes, it is universally agreed that only the federal government has the resources to conduct intelligence activities and the complex investigations and prosecutions of international terrorist activities. Not withstanding the federal role, there are areas in which states and local governments play an important role in anti-terrorist matters. These include emergency response to the attack by fire, police, and medical personnel; identifying critical target facilities; supplying manpower to regional task forces; acquiring equipment and communications technology for first responder use; and the planning and execution of required long-term medical assistance or biological agent neutralization. In addition, local authorities have the responsibility to control immediate facility damage and to be able to acquire other needed resources to bring the immediate situation under control.

It is now painfully obvious that the federal law enforcement and intelligence communities performed poorly prior to the events of September 11, 2001. Since that time their performance has not noticeably improved! The major flaw of some federal law enforcement agencies lies with their arrogance towards other federal, state, and local agencies. Unfortunately, there is little justification for the attitude. One of the most serious ramifications of this mind-set is the failure of the federal law enforcement agent to treat the capabilities of other agencies with respect. Despite the fact that police officers, state police, and a Customs officer have thwarted three terrorist incidents over the past several years, agencies at this level were not advised of al-Qaeda members in the United States prior to 9-11, nor were they furnished with relevant information concerning the ongoing investigation to locate additional suspects. Since that time, there have been promises of increased cooperation in the granting of secret clearances and other means by which to share information. Some progress has been made, but much remains to be done before all law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada are brought on line in a collaborative effort to combat future acts of terror.

It is very important that our first line of defense against terrorism--the seven hundred thousand officers on the street--be given adequate training and background information on terrorism, the methods and techniques of the terrorists, and the likelihood of an imminent attack. The reason this information should be shared, or available, is not so that state and local police can be involved in the investigation of terrorist cells, or individual terrorists, or collecting raw intelligence information. Rather it is simply that these officers know their territory and are on the street 24 hours a day. Considering that the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were stopped on several occasions by the local police prior to the attack for minor traffic violations, it is logical to assume that this pattern of random interception would continue in the future. If and when similar situations occur, our local and state officers should have background knowledge by which to arrive at a reasonable suspicion. Thereafter, the officers should have the ability to access national data banks to assist in the further resolution of the matter at hand. This is a largely ignored but critical asset in our struggle to contain terrorism.

For years the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has stalled on granting public safety organizations adequate spectrum for radio communications. Yet inter-operative radio communications are essential for adequate response to national emergencies. If the communication problems of September 11th cannot persuade the FCC to respect the public's need for additional spectrum from the spectrum (which is their property in the first place) then the Lord only knows what will move this incomprehensible agency to action. We also need to build a system by which public safety agencies can communicate through the Internet. The technology to build such a system is in place and some states such as Florida have built a very effective system. The cost of merging existing systems and extending the system to all law enforcement agencies is not great. The Department of Justice issued a set of proposals in April 2002 concerning enhanced communication between law enforcement agencies. These proposals need to be financed and implemented as soon as possible.


Consider if you will that you are the mayor or chief of police of a major city in the U.S. Your unquestioned legal responsibility is to provide safety and security to your citizens. In reality, however, you have sub-contracted this protection to the federal government and its various agencies. The safety of your citizens is now in the hands of people who do not live in your city and whose first responsibility is to the entire nation, rather than your city.

For example, the media reported that federal authorities received information that terrorists might have smuggled a suitcase-sized nuclear device into lower Manhattan with the intention of detonating the device. They also reported that the federal authorities decided not to tell the New York's mayor about their information on the grounds that it might induce public panic. If these reports are true, then the federal officials placed more value on their judgment than Mayor Giuliani's. This level of arrogance in our form of government is totally unacceptable.

It is intellectually indefensible for federal officials to assume that the higher office they hold confers upon them a superior intellect or judgment. Yet this is an attitude one consistently encounters in dealing with the federal government. It is not a new attitude by any means and it is one basis for a growing anti-federal feeling throughout the country. When this attitude is displayed--as it often is by government officials and members of Congress--it only erodes the trust we all have in the institutions they represent.

This is not to say that local and state officials should strive to protect themselves from terrorism alone. That would be foolish! However, it is to say that state and local officials should demand respect and equality when dealing with federal agencies. Withholding information, making unilateral decisions, or ignoring the legitimate concerns of local officials by federal officials should be deemed unacceptable. When state and local officers participate in joint task forces they should do so only on the condition that they be treated as equals and that their superiors are fully informed about matters of critical importance. If those conditions cannot be met, then the matter should be taken up with higher federal authorities, and if that fails, with Congress. If adequate results do not come from these efforts, then local and state officials should withdraw from cooperative and collaborative agreements. These organizations should then form their own regional anti-terror, anti-drug, and anti-violent crime task forces. While it may take a few years for these task forces to become effective, they will become effective as they gain experience.

For too long, state and local officials have acquiesced to the mediocre performance and conditions imposed by the federal government. The results were the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, Oklahoma City, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. This was a steep price to pay for turning our security from terrorism over to agencies which did not have the capability to prevent terrorist attacks in those days, and still do not have the capability to prevent terrorist attacks today.

Before state and local officials demand equality, respect, and performance from federal agencies, they must be able to give it in return. This means that state and local police agencies must be committed to hard work, additional training, self-discipline, and a firm commitment to the task. Anything less on the part of state and local police officers and managers will shatter any collaborative effort. We all know that no single agency can go it alone in this anti-terrorism effort. We also know that if the chiefs of the participating agencies absolutely demand that their officers work together, the concept will work with few, petty disruptions.

North Americans face a future filled with difficult and painful times. Beginning yesterday, we all must work together to either prevent, or minimize, the damage of additional terrorist attacks. On the political front, it is far past time that politicians and lobbyists stopped trying to achieve political, or economic, advantage from our efforts to negate terrorism. On the bureaucratic front, those excessive delays by departments in implementing fairly simple, common sense measures must be eliminated. On the law enforcement front, turf wars, petty personality conflicts, not sharing information or the workload--and the still unbelievable, selfish, insatiable quest by all law enforcement agencies and intelligence organizations to achieve public adulation for their successes--must cease. These common behaviors of politicians, bureaucrats, and law enforcement executives are not worthy of a great people.

In the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon we find the bones of honorable public servants--decent and courageous individuals--who understood the concept of duty. In Afghanistan more than forty more American and Canadian soldiers have given their lives in defense of our way of life. Is it too much to ask, then, that our current governmental leadership also be asked to live up to those standards of duty displayed by those who died--with honor--by simply doing their job?


E. L. (Bud) Willoughby is the retired Chief of Police, Salt Lake City, Utah. At present he serves as the Program Facilitator for the Major Cities Chiefs. He has been active in law enforcement matters for over fifty years.

Edward J. Tully retired from the FBI in 1993 after 31 years service. He was the Executive Director of the National Executive Institute Associates and the Major Cities Chiefs until this year. He has been active in law enforcement matters for forty years.