Lately, a growing chorus has charged that terrorist threats are overblown and make local police waste limited resources chasing nonexistent bogeymen—even as traditional crime ticks upward in many American cities. This line of thinking is misguided for two reasons. First, as the recently foiled plot to attack U.S. targets in Germany shows, the terrorist threat remains very real. Second, the choice between counterterrorism and traditional crime fighting is a false one. In fact, good police work is good counterterrorism. For example, in 2005, in Torrance, California, police arrested two men for robbing a gas station—and wound up uncovering a militant Islamic plot to attack Los Angeles–area synagogues and military installations.
Good information is perhaps the strongest weapon we have to combat both terrorism and common crime. The failure of the intelligence and law enforcement communities to “connect the dots,” as the 9/11 Commission put it, helped prevent us from disrupting al-Qaida’s 2001 attacks. By contrast, police forces’ success in reducing crime during the 1990s was due to their ability to connect the dots through Compstat (a police planning and accountability mechanism) and other kinds of crime analysis.
But for dots to be connected, whether they have to do with crime or with terrorism, information must be available to those who can best use it—and that frequently means local law enforcement. The good news is that since 9/11, law enforcement agencies have been working together better than ever before. Driving this change, at least in part, is Washington’s gradual realization that the nation’s 800,000 state and local police are our country’s “first preventers”—who stop terrorist acts before they occur—rather than just “first responders,” who react after an attack has taken place. State and local police have foiled a growing number of homegrown terror plots, including the Torrance case, though they have not garnered much national attention.
Information sharing between the federal government and state and local police has also improved. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which integrate local, state, and federal agencies, have tripled in number, from 34 before 9/11 to more than 100 today. The LAPD and other large police departments across the country maintain active communication and cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The creation of state and regional “fusion centers,” which pool and analyze information from multiple jurisdictions, represents another advance. These centers, now established in nearly every state, should be crucial in the years ahead in improving our capabilities for intelligence gathering and sharing.
The sobering news, however, is that we still have a long way to go in achieving a true homeland security partnership, one that processes and shares information in a meaningful, timely manner. Compstat, as practiced in cities like New York and Los Angeles, provides a model for such sharing. Yet despite the effective partnership between locals and feds, the relationship is inherently asymmetrical. A local police chief’s access to meaningful and timely information often depends significantly on his relationship with the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge or with the U.S. Attorney. In some cities, local chiefs find themselves relying on CNN as their primary source of information.
Further, a recent congressional report noted several issues preventing fusion centers from reaching their full potential. The report questioned how much intelligence “fusing” actually goes on at the centers: even though different law enforcement agencies may have representatives physically present, the report concluded, “collocation alone does not constitute fusion.” Also, our government needs to vet and streamline the myriad databases that it now keeps on terror suspects and criminals. And most important is developing uniform training procedures and standards on how intelligence is gathered, stored, and accessed in order to safeguard citizens’ privacy and civil rights. To give credit where it is due, the Department of Homeland Security is aware of many of these problems and has recently taken steps to address them. But the early experiences of local police with fusion centers are worrisome: many have yet to see anything of value to help them fight either crime or terrorism.
Consequently, instead of relying solely on the federal government for intelligence, many state and local police departments have started to create their own systems—assembling their own databases and setting up their own DNA labs, for example. Some, like New York City, are doing it on their own; others, like Los Angeles, lacking New York’s resources, are doing it in collaboration with other police departments in the region.
But critics who see all this as distracting local police from their basic functions may be imperiling our safety. We lost the 1960s’ “war on crime” partly because we misunderstood the role of local police; we lost the “war on drugs” because we misjudged the capacity of local police. We do not want to lose the war on terror for similar reasons.