Washington D.C. Police Confront Homeland Security Challenges

Tuesday, February 02, 2010
By Robert K. Ackerman
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A Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department officer uses a new mobile data computer installed in a patrol car. These computers have increased the department’s ability to share information rapidly across internal divisions and with other law enforcement entities. In the background standing just outside the patrol car is Cathy L. Lanier, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) chief of police.

Think globally, act locally has a different meaning in the nation’s capital.

The Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., is accelerating its implementation and use of information technology to meet the terrorist threat that looms over the U.S. capital. This includes adapting everyday police technologies for homeland security and counterterrorism operations, and it also involves bringing in new capabilities from the civil and private sectors.

Protecting the capital on a local level poses unique challenges, but it also offers advantages. The police department must accommodate both traditional local concerns and diverse needs related to the presence of multiple federal government and military organizations. Yet, the department also can tap those myriad government agencies for vital resources and information that help it counter or respond to terrorist threats.

Cathy L. Lanier is the chief of police, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), Washington, D.C. She moved into her position as MPD chief after heading the department’s Office of Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. She relates that when she was creating that office, she was both running an operational division and developing policy and guidance for the entire department’s role in homeland security and counterterrorism. In those positions, she would assemble a plan for policies and procedures for the chief to approve. Just when she brought her finished plan to the chief, she became the chief and assumed responsibility for approving and implementing the plan and its elements.

She says that, as chief, she has learned that policies often are far away from the reality on the street and thus may not be workable. However, her homeland security policy recommendations were based on the command’s operational status. “I put it together as a hands-on operational person, and now [as chief] I don’t have to sit back and complain, ‘Whoever wrote this has no idea what it’s like on the street,’” Chief Lanier says. While her plan has been tweaked to account for the evolution of the terrorist threat, she offers that she is happy with the progress that has been made in that plan.

Over the past few years, MPD spending on homeland security has remained relatively stable within its budget. The recent economic downturn has affected funding this year, but that decline is neither significant nor a detriment to maintaining department capabilities, the chief says.

Chief Lanier points out that the department’s homeland security challenge has evolved significantly since 9/11. Originally, the department focused on rethinking how it does general policing. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the department joined other local police agencies in asking to be included in the information flow that would “connect the dots for terrorism.”

When the MPD was included in that information loop, it shifted its focus to evolving into an agency that can contribute information into that connect-the-dots analysis. Chief Lanier explains that this entails being able to pick up on any subtle activity that needs to be entered into the analysis information flow.

The chief notes that the average MPD officer has about 18 years’ experience on the force. So, the issue is not just training new recruits; it also involves training officers who have their own ways of policing that have been developed over nearly two decades of work on the streets. She adds that the department has met this challenge, and MPD officers now can identify subtle activity that needs to be noted and passed along the information chain.

Chief Lanier offers that the MPD has a robust capability for identifying potential threats and moving that threat information to the appropriate department agency for analysis. However, the department also is tasked with ensuring that other necessary parties outside of district government receive this vital information.

And that is no small task. Washington, D.C., is rife with multiple federal law enforcement agencies along with other government agencies and organizations that are part of homeland security and counterterrorism activities. And, as the nation’s capital, it is a high-value target for terrorists.

So, with all these partners and all the mechanisms in place, Chief Lanier’s biggest concern is that someone will miss the significance of a piece of information and not share it with the appropriate authorities. “We still ask the question every day: ‘Who needs to know this information and have you shared it with them?’” she says. The same holds true for the other agencies’ sharing with the MPD. Representatives of the other agencies sit on the MPD fusion center governance board, so the chief hopes that those points of contact ensure proper information sharing from their respective agencies.

Knowing each organization’s priorities is essential, she continues. For example, if the fire department does not know that the MPD needs some information that it routinely collects, that information may not be passed to the MPD when it is needed—and the dots are not connected. So, all parties must make each organization aware of their information needs, or the information sharing capability will fall short of effectiveness.

Helping the MPD achieve its information sharing goals is the department’s fusion center. This facility serves as an information hub that utilizes technology for sharing information. Prior to its establishment, the department relied on liaisons with the various government agencies and law enforcement organizations.

Over the past two years, the department has made tremendous progress in being connected interoperably with traditional and nontraditional sources. These key stakeholders include the World Bank, the Water and Sewer Authority, and Potomac Electric Power Company, for example, and the MPD can glean valuable information from them. Chief Lanier credits the current assistant chief in charge of the homeland security and counterterrorism bureau, Pat Burke, with establishing a strong connection with non-law-enforcement organizations such as the business community, the hospitality industry and other private sector entities.

The fusion center has enabled the MPD to receive information electronically from these key groups on a daily basis, Chief Lanier adds. It effectively has allowed the MPD to formalize its homeland security relationship with the private sector, particularly in terms of how to exchange and share information.

To ensure that this new networking did not violate U.S. information sharing laws, the MPD spent more than a year developing new privacy policies. This effort involved the capital’s many federal sector partners, and it covered human interaction, databases and information sharing. “Nowhere in the United States is it more important to follow those policies and privacy practices than in Washington, D.C.,” Chief Lanier declares.

Currently, the MPD is working on key technology upgrades for the fusion center. The chief allows that, over the past two years, technology has been at the core of access to information and systems. The MPD views having good relationships with other government centers, such as those of the FBI and DHS, as key to plugging into information pipelines through technology. This has made the exchange of information less reliant on technology.


An FBI agent working out of a bureau mobile communications center works with Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police following the killing of a guard at the Holocaust museum last year. The MPD must interoperate with a host of federal law enforcement and other agency organizations to protect the nation’s capital against terrorist threats.

The next step is to replace some remaining human activity with technology-based capabilities. For example, technology could enable easier and more reliable analytical capabilities, improving precision and efficiency in analysis of information. Chief Lanier places analytic software high on her technology wish list, but she emphasizes that it must be accurate and fast to serve MPD homeland security needs. “If it takes a long period of time to do a good quality analysis, it can hurt us,” she states.

In spite of technology advances, cultural hurdles to effective information sharing remain between the MPD and its federal partners, However, Chief Lanier emphasizes that these cultural hurdles are more idiosyncratic than institutional. About 90 percent of the cultural issues that emerge are tied to individuals, she declares. Organizations may have engineered the necessary cultural shift, but some individuals remain resistant to change—and that includes within the MPD. Law enforcement is a tradition-driven culture that values experience highly, so dramatic change is difficult, she adds.

Historically, police departments are among the worst for sharing information within their own organizations, the chief continues. Homeland-security-driven requirements have helped break down those interior barriers to information sharing. This in turn has helped the MPD solve crimes and reduce the homicide rate—down 22.5 percent this year, she says. Breaking down those internal cultural barriers also has served as an example for improving inter-organizational information sharing.

Now that the MPD has its homeland security/counterterrorism framework in place and in operation, Chief Lanier is counting on outside expertise to help the department in its efforts. These non-law-enforcement organizations—such as the military and the private sector—have more experience in areas unfamiliar to law enforcement personnel. The private sector is a font of experience in technology, and new capabilities may emerge to benefit the MPD. The department is continuing to develop relationships with private sector organizations, especially those that can bring diverse expertise to the department.

New media technologies are beginning to permeate MPD operations, albeit slowly. The MPD has a Facebook page, and Twitter is another option. MySpace has “unbelievable amounts of information,” the chief adds. The new recruits who have entered the department over the past couple of years are well-versed in using social media, and this will help speed their acceptance.

Five years ago, then-chief Charles H. Ramsey cited the need for a “TurboTax for cops” that would fill out police reports in the same manner that the self-help tax software shortens the steps needed for an individual filing a tax return (SIGNAL Magazine, February 2005). The MPD has that capability now, and Chief Lanier explains that it is helping speed up report writing and putting information in the hands of crime-solvers more rapidly. This can be important in homeland security/counterterrorism efforts as well.

With this new system, an arresting officer can input data in his or her car computer by digitally answering five basic questions. When those data fields are filled out, other online databases—such as motor vehicle records—add the rest of the information necessary to complete a seven- or 12-page form, thus removing the need for the arresting officer to input redundant data into each page of the form. The system prints out the complete form with all the necessary information in the correct boxes.

MPD police cars have been equipped with computers, which can tie into the closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems that are scanning high-crime areas. Gunshot tracking technology allows a CCTV camera to be turned immediately in the direction of the shot, so officers on patrol can view that camera’s image as they respond to the scene.

Chief Lanier credits communication technology with helping improve the district’s homicide closure rate and reduce the homicide rate. ListServes help people provide vital information—sometimes in the form of anonymous tips—that help prevent or solve crimes. The chief allows that she can page thousands of people in the capital with a text alert notifying them to be on the lookout for a fleeing vehicle, for example.

She relates that two weeks after officers began receiving BlackBerry units, the first officer responding to a bank robbery on

Wisconsin Avenue
requested that a particularly useful image from a surveillance video be e-mailed to a BlackBerry. That image was relayed to a police team homing in on the tracking device embedded in the stolen cash. Two hours later, the team of officers tracked the robber to a parking lot in northeast Washington, and the image on the BlackBerry allowed them to locate the exact vehicle in that lot containing the perpetrator. They were able to make a quick arrest. “Now apply that to our ability to respond to threats immediately,” she offers.

Fixed and mobile automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) can scan for stolen cars, recently carjacked vehicles or even vehicles belonging to a person of interest who might be coming to Washington to commit crimes or to set up a terrorist attack. Some of these ALPRs are mounted on street sweeping machines. Even a partial tag could tip off the ALPR. When it identifies a stolen car, an ALPR pulls the original arrest report to be presented to the responding officers.

Of the MPD’s top two homeland security priorities, one is that the department does not lose its focus on identifying significant threats to the district. This entails setting intelligence priorities and determining requirements to achieve them.

Chief Lanier says that she views the MPD as the primary security bubble for the district, so the department must articulate its requirements—and the information it needs—well to its federal counterparts. Absent that, these federal agencies may not know just what information the department needs.

The second homeland security priority is to ensure that any information the MPD receives is acted on, one way or another. “We don’t overlook any threat that comes in,” she says. “Every piece of information we get, there is some action taken.”

Those priorities have matured over recent years as the MPD has improved its understanding of the challenge, she notes. Where earlier priorities focused on traditional local law enforcement response, today’s priorities are much more proactive, including predictive analysis. This enables the MPD to identify threats and put into place a plan to deal with them, she emphasizes.

The department’s priorities also have changed with the nature of the global terrorism threat. For example, transportation assets are hugely vulnerable and are a favorite target of terrorists, so local law enforcement throughout the country is focusing on that threat.

A radiological attack would be the most challenging for any municipality to deal with, and Chief Lanier believes that one would have the greatest effect on the city. The MPD, and the city as a whole, are well-prepared to deal with this kind of threat, particularly with the other civil government and military assets available. “If one of those types of attacks were to occur anywhere in the United States, nowhere else has the assets we have that are well-trained and ready,” she states. “But those are the ones you hope never happen. No matter how good we are, there is no good outcome.”

But the one thought that keeps her awake at night is the threat that has not occurred to anyone—the failure of imagination as to what may come next. “What is it that we haven’t thought of that could happen?” she asks. “That still scares me because I know it is there.”

Editor’s Note: AFCEA’s Intelligence Committee is working with the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., to help evaluate its fusion center.

Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD): http://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/site/default.asp
MPD Terrorist Incident Prevention Program (TIPP): http://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/cwp/view,a,1238,q,555173,mpdcNav_GID,1578,mpdcNav,|32355|.asp



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What we also need to do is get MPD involved with Intellipedia-U and other Intelink tools on the unclassified, but secure network. Working and connecting local law-enforcement with State and Federal Agencies is key to preventing disasters and making the connections needed to organize the collaborative efforts between them.

Let me know if they would like to know more, I would be glad to come give a talk. It sounds like the Chief and the recruits already using social media, will be amenable.