Police Deliver Ground-Level Defense Against Terrorists

February 2012
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


Law enforcement plays a critical role in the homeland security enterprise. Officers combat terrorism in many ways similar to the military, and they have the most chances to interact with terrorists stateside by responding to crimes such as suspicious activity and traffic violations.

The uniformed personnel fighting terrorism are not always dressed in camouflage.

For many, the words “homeland security” and “counterterrorism” conjure up images of federal investigators engaged in large-scale battle with a host of enemies bent on death and destruction. But the war often begins on a smaller, more subtle level, with state, local and tribal law enforcement officers manning the front lines. Daily interactions coupled with solid training give these officials a chance to stop an attack before it starts, and the ramifications can affect the global community.

Many groups are working to combine various intelligence data sources and to ensure relevant information is shared with those who need it. One of these organizations is the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The IACP works to further the dialogue among stakeholders and inform officers about events occurring overseas such as activities of state sponsors of terrorism or terrorist groups. The professional history of its current executive director, Bart Johnson, reflects the broad nature of the association. He has more than 30 years of experience working with law enforcement, including more than 24 years with the New York State Police. He also served as the director of homeland security and law enforcement in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and as the principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Johnson says that in recent years the intelligence community and the U.S. Defense Department have gained a better understanding of what law enforcement agencies do stateside and internationally. He points out that three-quarters of a million officers within the United States belong to 18,000 different organizations, and that they are out there every day interacting with the public, answering complaints and putting their lives on the line. These activities resemble what troops do on a regular basis with the goal of protecting the citizens of the United States, but in a law enforcement arena instead of a military one. Johnson stresses that a natural relationship and strong parallels exist between the intelligence community’s and the military’s homeland security efforts and those of law enforcement.

“It’s interesting to note that law enforcement has always played a critical role in homeland security, and that role has increased since September 11, 2001,” Johnson says. This work includes not only traditional counterterrorism activities, but also battling narcotics, human smuggling, gangs, homicides and other crimes that can have links to terrorists. Johnson explains that in several instances, uniformed officials noticed suspicious activity with possible terrorism connections, and their reports have affected operations in other countries. Likewise, information coming in from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan has influenced state, local and tribal law enforcement events.

Law enforcement agents have been instrumental in preventing several terrorist attacks in the last two and a half years through activities as basic as traffic stops and noticing suspicious activity. Johnson says properly equipped and trained law enforcement officers are in the best position to interact with the general public, identify potential risk behavior and make reports on terrorists to joint terrorism task forces. If they are provided with the right information, they do an excellent job putting it to use, he states. In recent years, those responsible for producing terrorism reports have reached a better understanding that personnel outside the intelligence and military communities consume that information and put it to use in homeland security efforts.

Johnson says that he does not characterize any changes in law enforcement organizations’ approach to terrorism since 9/11 as an increase in taskings. “Rather, I would characterize it as a better understanding that counterterrorism is part of their responsibility in preventing and mitigating crime,” he explains. “Some people try to separate terrorism out of law enforcement activity. Terrorism is a crime.” When officers respond to a crime, they can remain aware that activities could be indicative of larger scheme. Illicit materials in the back of a car, for example, could be the makings for a mobile methamphetamine laboratory, or they could be the ingredients for explosives necessary to conduct a terrorist attack.

Johnson also discusses how not all homeland security has to do with terrorism. “Hometown security is homeland security,” he states, sharing a phrase coined in an IACP study. A community plagued by gang violence is not secure, whether or not that gang has links to what traditionally would be considered terrorism. However, connections between the two could exist, so officers should be aware of possible implications.

The various information-sharing advances that have resulted from 9/11 such as the National Network of Fusion Centers have evolved to help fight all types of crimes. According to the DHS, these centers “serve as primary focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information among federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners.” Though established to protect the country from terrorists, they now provide information that helps stop general crime such as narcotic and weapon smuggling.

Though joint task forces in areas such as terrorism and drug enforcement have been in place since before 9/11, Johnson says that the attacks that day highlighted how officers were not receiving the information they needed that would have sensitized them to the growing terrorist threat. For example, many local, state and tribal officials did not know about threats emanating overseas and coming to the United States, nor were they made aware of the indicators of terrorism that would have made them more informed stakeholders, Johnson says.

He adds that everyone relied on the federal government and joint task forces for that type of information. Johnson continues that significant progress has been made in ensuring that information from the intelligence community is passed to law enforcement organizations; and he says personnel now are more aware that they cannot always look to the federal level to provide leads and indicators from overseas because the threat has evolved to emanate from within U.S. borders as well. Often, events occurring at a lower level are the first signs of trouble, and well-informed officers are the best line of defense. “Law enforcement needs to be part of the homeland security enterprise in the protection of our country,” Johnson states.


Law enforcement officers always have played a counterterrorism role, but such efforts have increased since 9/11. When local, state and tribal officials are properly equipped and trained for these duties, the result is an increase in data that affects homeland security on national and global scales.

He acknowledges the many advancements in these areas over the past decade, but says the next 10 years will need to include more formalization. Johnson promotes an institutionalization of the processes, procedures and support of law enforcement’s role in the national intelligence enterprise.

In Johnson’s judgment, officers’ increased awareness of counterterrorism responsibilities has not put a strain on agencies’ resources because these personnel patrol and investigate each day. The economy, however, has presented challenges. Less funding means that organizations are reducing staff, technology, training and equipment, and they also are facing cuts to many federal grants. All these impact law enforcement organizations’ abilities to complete their missions. Johnson believes that the leaders who belong to the IACP recognize diminishing resources but see that as an opportunity to create more efficiencies and to work with one another more effectively. By better leveraging technology and intelligence, and preventing crimes before they happen, organizations can help save funds and time. “It certainly emphasizes the importance of the National Network of Fusion Centers that IACP has been very supportive of,” Johnson states.

Also critical to the fight against crime and terrorism is a relationship with international partners. Cybercrime especially has transnational roots, but many foreign law enforcement agencies have experience with gangs, terrorists, narcotics and money laundering, which enables them to share or accept lessons learned. Because many countries are experiencing this same type of terrorist activity, Johnson says, foreign agencies particularly are interested in how the United States passes information from the intelligence community to the front-line officers quickly and in a format that enables them to take action. The IACP sponsors several conferences and seminars throughout the world to highlight issues that members of various nations must handle.

Another key to success is finding technology that allows different groups to share the information they have. “That is a challenge,” Johnson says. “Unfortunately, you still have networks that aren’t compatible with one another, and sometimes you have different data sets.” The IACP and others work to foster and identify those issues, then present them to the federal government. For example, the association supports the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) that was developed by the Global Advisory Committee. It helps to standardize these data sets to connect communities that need to share information among themselves in order to advance their missions.

Another initiative supported by the IACP and making a difference for officers is the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Described by the bureau as an electronic clearinghouse of crime data available at all times to almost every criminal justice agency in the country, it allows users to access information on the persons of interest. Through it, a trooper on patrol can check if an individual is on the terrorist watch list. Johnson says another beneficial system is the FBI’s National Data Exchange, or N-DEx, which ties together disparate information management systems. “That’s something we’re supporting since it will provide access to more information that will be helpful to law enforcement agencies from throughout the country,” he explains (SIGNAL Magazine, February 2010, page 21).

A major technology challenge that the IACP and other law enforcement groups are addressing is spectrum restriction. Officials are working with members of Congress to pass legislation that will reserve the D-Block of the radio spectrum for a public safety broadband network. This dedicated bandwidth would help ensure communications among various law enforcement groups. “Information sharing is one of the reasons the IACP exists in the first place,” Johnson shares. In fact, he says, years ago the association began developing a new form of criminal reporting known as Uniform Crime Reporting that has been operated by the FBI for decades and serves as a great tool to identify trends and patterns.

Also included in the homeland security equation is the private sector. “I think it’s important to engage members of industry because if they know law enforcement needs and requirements, then they’re better equipped to develop and implement the technology necessary to help law enforcement officers do their jobs better,” Johnson says. Otherwise, companies develop and implement their products, and officers have to adapt to the technology. The IACP builds relationships with industry members to help them understand what would aid law enforcement organizations. “There’s so much expertise resident in the private sector that it behooves us to work closely with them,” Johnson says. He adds that private security personnel are protecting infrastructure owned and operated by industry. “It’s important to integrate their information,” he states.

IACP: www.theiacp.org
National Network of Fusion Centers: www.dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1296484657738.shtm
NIEM: www.niem.gov
National Data Exchange: www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/n-dex

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