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How to Work with the Feds

When the men and women in dark suits come in, work with the people, not the agencies.

September 01, 2004  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

In May, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Muller held a press conference, warning the public that Al Qaeda was planning an attack in the United States. Notably absent was Tom Ridge, the director of the newly formed De­partment of Homeland Security.

That morning Ridge was busy conducting his own interviews, going on television telling the public there was no new intelligence on any terrorist threats and there was no need to raise the color-coded terror advisory. State, county, and municipal law enforcement and government officials were also not made aware of the information until after the press conference.

All of this begs the question, if federal agencies have problems cooperating and sharing information, how can local law enforcement work with them?

The answers are certainly not simple, and may depend on just who is doing the answering.

Turf Wars

Det. Lt. Michael Fleming, commanding officer of the Asset Forfeiture Bureau of the Nassau County (N.Y.) Police Department, knows the pluses and minuses of working with the feds. He has participated in numerous joint task forces involving federal, state, and local agencies. And as a certified police instructor, he has trained both Nassau County officers and federal agents in methods and procedures for improving cooperation between agencies.

After years of working with various federal agencies, he says cooperation is something that can't always happen.

"Cooperation between law enforcement agencies is an elusive goal, frequently discussed but rarely achieved in its fullest sense," Fleming says. "Because the leaders of most law enforcement agencies serve by appointment or election, they often must compete for media attention as a means of achieving recognition for their work. While competition usually produces increased efforts to achieve goals, competition between law enforcement agencies often creates friction and a reluctance to share information."

Fleming believes the May incident involving the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security is endemic of the kind of turf wars that develop between competing agencies.

"It was obvious that the Department of Homeland Security was not privy to detailed terrorist threat information being investigated by the FBI until the general public was informed by way of a press conference," Fleming says.

Working Relationships

But despite the persistence of obvious obstacles between agencies, Fleming says there are still ways for local departments to have a successful relationship with federal agencies. The key is for individual agents and officers to develop working relationships.

"Although cooperation among agencies is difficult, cooperation between law enforcement individuals is so routine that it is almost taken for granted," Fleming explains. "Conscientious investigators will recognize their geographical and legal limitations. They will actively seek out contacts that will help them to exceed those limitations and thereby increase their effectiveness."

In other words, good officers and agents will reach out for help when it's needed. And according to Fleming, they always have.

"The best detectives used to maintain a little black book of contacts that could be called on for assistance," says Fleming. "Today, the black book has been replaced by a Palm Pilot or some other modern database, but the concept remains the same."

Trust Matters

Martin Walsh is a resident agent in charge who has been with the Secret Service for 20 years. He has worked in the presidential protective division, headed the criminal squad in New York City, supervised the protection squad in New York City, and now works on Long Island. And his experience has taught him that interagency cooperation is based on trust and that trust is usually built one-on-one.

"It takes a little time to develop a sense of trust between the various agencies," Walsh says. "It depends in some instances on personal relationships. If I call one of these [local] guys and tell them something, they know me and they know because of the relationship we have developed that I am not going to be untruthful, so basically what I tell them they can take to the bank."

Walsh should know because local agency cooperation is critical to the mission of the Secret Service and it often needs the support of local agencies if a major event happens, like a presidential visit.

"How I conduct myself through criminal investigations extends through a protection assignment," Walsh says. "So when I come to them with a request they will know it will be as reasonable as it can be because they have dealt with me in a criminal investigation."

Local Relationships

Something that often complicates cooperative relationships between the feds and the locals on major investigations and operations is that sometimes there is strife among the local agencies. This means that the feds are caught in the middle and can easily anger one of the local agencies by appearing to favor another.

One way to counter this problem is to build working relationships between locals before a major incident through joint training and investigative task forces.

Robert Hart, senior agent in charge with the FBI, says task forces can accomplish numerous goals. "[The formation of a task force] recognizes that there is a crime problem that needs to be addressed by federal, state, and local officials and once that crime problem is identified, then it brings all the resources under one umbrella to combat that crime."

One such task force that Hart says has been a huge success is the FBI-sponsored Safe Streets task force, which deals with violent crimes such as bank robberies, gang incidents, and major thefts.

Sharing the Limelight

Of course, one of the biggest problems that officers and agents encounter in a task force is publicity. After the task force has scored a major victory, everybody wants a share of the media limelight. And local agencies are wary of the feds taking all the credit.

Hart says he has worked hard in his task force operations to assuage the fears of other participants that the FBI will take over and hog the stage. "I think all the partners in the task force would say that as far as sharing, be it resources, publicity, or asset forfeiture, it is all done on an equal footing."

As an example, Hart points to the gang task force that is now in effect on Long Island and is so successful that local agencies are actually asking to join. "When we formed in 2003, it was started with several local law enforcement agencies, and since then we have been contacted by others that want to come on board and join the task force. They see that it has been a very effective tool in dealing with the gang problem on Long Island."

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