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The State of American Law Enforcement - Stopping the Next 9/11

Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

September 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

We Are at War

Radio interoperability may be one of the most complex and expensive problems that has ever faced American law enforcement. But the toughest thing that American cops have had to cope with since 9/11 is understanding how their mission has changed.

"We have had to go from traditional crime fighting to being at war. That's a whole different mind-set," says Grollman.

But Grollman believes that many officers have been able to grasp the difference and that has greatly enhanced public safety. "We cannot take anything for granted now," he says. "And I think that many of us realize that. If a vehicle was parked in the wrong place in the past, we would just write a ticket or have it towed. Now we bring in the bomb dog and check it out before we have it towed."

Unfortunately, not everyone in American law enforcement is quite so vigilant. Nor is everyone convinced that the threat from foreign terrorists should remain a priority.

Giduck finds that police brass are more likely to discount the threat of terrorism in their community more than the rank and file officers. "Patrol officers understand that they will be asked to go screaming into this next horrible attack with lights and sirens," he says. "But there is increasing disenfranchisement as you go above them."

Fortunately, today's rank and file is tomorrow's police leadership. And that makes Giduck optimistic about the future of law enforcement terrorism response. He says that when he is approached by frustrated young patrol officers who are concerned about their commander's dismissal of terrorism threats, he gives them this advice: "Take the sergeant's test. Take the lieutenant's test. The people in charge now are not going to be around forever and eventually you are going to be in a position to effect change."

Public Opinion

One reason why command staff may not be as gung ho about terrorism response training and counter-terror intel is that they have to answer to the boss: the public.

And seven years after 9/11, it's the brave chief or sheriff that goes to the boss and says we need more money for terrorism response and intel analysts. The public is much more concerned about home invasion robberies than it is about an al-Qaeda gas attack or bombing. A substantial percentage of Americans are convinced that AQ has shot its bolt and no longer represents a threat to the homeland. And among those who do believe an attack is coming, many take a fatalistic attitude. They believe an attack is coming and nothing can be done to stop it.

The battle to convince the public of the danger may be as arduous as the war against terror. But it has to be fought. And some cops are doing their best to teach the citizenry that the threat is not over.

Ahern says that one of the roles of the Terror Early Warning Group is to educate the community. It's a role that many experts say all cops must play.

"We have to make sure that the citizens understand that we can't relax our vigilance," says Keevil. "It's been seven years since 9/11, and the public wants to get on with their lives. Part of our job is to remind them that this is very serious and the [terrorists] never relent. If we drop our posture, they will take advantage of it."

Along with the fact that the media tends to belittle your attempts to strengthen American law enforcement's response to terrorism, one of the reasons why the public can't seem to take it seriously is the way it's presented. Shortly after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security told Americans to have duct tape and plastic sheeting on hand in case of a gas attack. That's actually not terrible advice. But it was presented badly, and the media and late night comics ridiculed it.

Retired CIA officer Lovett says that the problem was that the public was overwhelmed with all the information coming out of Homeland Security, and it just started to ignore the message. "We told people to be alert, but we didn't tell them what to look for. If you just tell people to be alert, then they burn out, and they stop listening to you."

Experts say that one way to gain public support for the cost of equipment and training you need to respond to terror attacks is to camouflage it with a dual purpose. For example, a new command center can be for natural disasters and terror response. And if the tactical team needs to train at the local middle school, it's easy to sell it as training for responding to a school shooter not a Beslan-type siege. "A school shooter is something that's more manageable and urgent to them," says Giduck. "It doesn't shock them out of the cocoon that everyone in America wants to hide in."

Horrors to Come

Fortunately, most American law enforcement officers don't live in that cocoon. And that may be the most important improvement in your ability to respond to terrorism. You expect it to happen.

What form an attack will take, what will trigger it, and where it will happen no one knows. But it's going to happen again.

Israeli terrorism expert Howard Linett is convinced that the next major terror attack on American soil will not come from al-Qaeda but from Iran-backed Hezbollah cells. He believes that the coming war between Israel and Iran or the United States and Iran will trigger Hezbollah operations in America.

Other experts who wouldn't go on record because they have no proof of their suspicions believe such an Iranian-instigated terror campaign is a strong possibility. They point to the fact that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has warned that he has ways to hurt America if war comes. "It's important that we take such statements seriously," says one expert who notes that Hezbollah is known to have cells in South America.

Regardless of where the next attack comes from, American law enforcement is better prepared to respond and even prevent terror attacks than it was seven years ago.

The trick now is maintaining that heightened vigilance.

"I think that after 9/11 great strides were made in the United States when it comes to terrorism response by law enforcement," says Linett. "Unfortunately continuing what was done may not be a priority going forward. I think that's a shame because it could end up costing a lot of lives in the future. I believe we are in a period of calm before the storm."


In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line.  Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic.  Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test.  Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?

Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship.  Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?  The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines.  The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

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