How to Work with the Feds

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.

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."[PAGEBREAK]

Asking for Help

In 1994, Det. Ricky Smith and Det. Joe Serrano of the Hempstead (N.Y.) Police Department started a war against gangs in the Village of Hempstead. It was a war that escalated with each passing year, and one they knew they could not fight alone.

Help came in the form of a federal task force, one that began with the DEA and then was taken over by the FBI. Ten FBI agents, along with local departments, have now taken over the battle, and Smith and Serrano are no longer alone.

Smith says the joint effort between the feds and the locals has been a major success. Much of that success is because turf wars have not developed and the task force works like a team. Smith says he feels lucky that "the guys we have gotten are very good. They know what they are doing and they don't act like feds. The preconceived concept that is there for feds, well, they are the complete opposite."

Smith believes that true cooperation and the ability to get along, really comes down to the guys who are working the street. "If you get certain people that have a bad personality, who say, 'I'm the star and nobody else counts,' somebody who tries to get the credit all the time, then it doesn't work. Everybody has to work together for the common goal. Nobody [in our task force] cares if they get their name on the paperwork; no one cares if it is my arrest or theirs. The task force is all of us; if we lock someone up, we all do it."

Of course, turf wars are not always about who gets the credit or who is in charge. Once a fish is hooked, somebody has to fry him, and arguments about jurisdiction can sometimes sour relations between cooperating agencies.

Smith says the Long Island gang task force long ago agreed to procedures for determining who prosecutes the bad guy. "We decide back and forth, whether it is the U.S. attorney or the district attorney's office, what charges will get the bigger bang. We want to put the bad people away in jail for a long time. So if they will get more time on the state or the federal charges that's the way it will go."

Lines of Communication

The Long Island gang task force benefits from something that officers and agents say is critical for a successful interagency effort. The men and women involved talk to each other.

Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the DEA Robert Mangiamele is a veteran of both domestic and foreign investigations involving multiple agencies and he says the key to cooperation is open communication.

It's also critical that everyone in the operation understand what he or she can contribute to the effort. "You have to be willing to share your strengths and pick your strengths from other departments," says Mangiamele. "You don't have to like each other, you just have to work with each other," he adds.

Of course, even if the lines of communication are wide open, cooperating agencies can start pulling against each other. Mangiamele says that it's important to realize that every agency has its own objectives and goals. And sometimes those goals can conflict with interagency cooperation.

Mangiamele believes that cooperating agencies must be willing to share information even if it could potentially cause a setback in one of their individual operations. "You have to share and be able to trust," he says. "You have to share information and not be afraid that an investigation that is presently being conducted will get leaked out."

The Laboratory

Few local police agencies have more experience dealing with the feds than the New York City Police Department. Because New York is home to the United Nations and numerous federal agencies are at work in the Big Apple, NYPD officers from almost every rank have had some kind of interaction with federal agents. This makes New York kind of a laboratory of interagency cooperation experiments.

NYPD Assistant Chief Jack McManus has a lot of experience working with feds of all stripes. He was the coordinator of the Republican National Convention, which took over the city late last month and brought numerous dignitaries to town, including the president.

Because New York City has a constant relationship with the federal agencies, McManus believes his task of coordinating the operations of law enforcement at the convention was a little easier than it would be for a cop in another town. But it was still a colossal undertaking involving NYPD officers, FBI agents, Secret Service agents, the U.S. Attorney's office, the FAA, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Capitol Police, and others.

To make the job easier, the NYPD and the Secret Service partnered up and chaired 18 federal subcommittees. Committees included dignitary VIP protection, venue security, air space security, civil disturbance control, prison processing, consequence management, credentialing, crisis management, hazardous materials response, contingency planning, interagency communication, intelligence counterterrorism, legal, public affairs, and training. An executive steering committee that oversaw all these committees was chaired by McManus and the lead Secret Service agent.

The general law enforcement issues were left to the NYPD. They took the lead in crowd control and the Secret Service took the lead inside of Madison Square Garden.

Yet, despite the overwhelming presence of federal agencies on their home turf, McManus said there was no competition between his officers and the feds. "We feel very comfortable that we have the lead," he says. "It has been a very positive experience, and drawing on the preexisting relationships made it easier."

And that, McManus says, is one of the keys to dealing with the feds. "Start relationships in advance, long in advance, before an event necessitates it."
Officers who have worked closely with federal agencies say success or failure hinges on the people involved, not necessarily the bureaucracies. As with most things in law enforcement, when the officers who work on the street level get along, cooperation among agencies is the end result.

"The whole thing comes down to being trustworthy and truthful and one misstep can set you back a long way," says Walsh. "If through some misunderstanding people think that you are not being truthful it takes a lot of time and effort to undo that damage."

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Police magazine.

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