10 years after 9/11: The mission of the cop on the beat

American law enforcement agencies are out front in domestic counterterrorism — street cops are the first to perceive changes that might evolve into a terrorist threat


My job description was rewritten ten years ago. On September 11, 2001, just like every other cop in America, I added homeland security to my responsibilities as a cop. Police officers keenly felt the responsibility to prevent another 9/11 with the identification of each of the 72 law enforcement officers killed in the attacks. Protecting my community and watching the backs of my brother and sister officers became more intensely personal.

Within a few months, I knew more than I wanted to know about the risks of anhydrous ammonia. The 2002 Winter Olympics followed right on the heels of 9/11. Suddenly protecting the refrigerant for the luge track became an issue of national security. A terrorist attack on the anhydrous ammonia tanks used for the cooling of the track could have killed countless thousands. Not long after, I learned why my department should be concerned about an order placed for 10 gallons of hydrogen peroxide at a beautician supply house by a man who seemed to have no connection to a beauty salon.

After 9/11, such issues became important for the cop on the beat.

Eyes and Ears of Public Safety
Street cops have a homeland security mission, whether as part of a formal agency strategy, a particular duty assignment, or simply a new facet to our perpetual role as the first line of protection for our communities. Some of the most significant post-9/11 changes to law enforcement are seen in the developing role of the street cop as a homeland security protector. No longer could intelligence gathering be a task limited to part of the detective division.

Beat cops are the eyes and the ears of public safety on the street. Beat cops secure their communities against terrorists by “looking beyond the license plate” in traffic and field interrogation stops, building relationships with local businesses that may be targets or may be suppliers of materials that terrorists need to construct bombs, applying their unique knowledge of the local area to assessing intelligence reports from other sources, assisting outside agencies in local surveillance and by developing and maintaining a broad network of confidential sources.

September 11th brought fusion centers to the police world. Most agencies are connected to a regional fusion center by intelligence liaison officers (ILOs) who collect intel within the department and pass it on to the fusion center. Information gathered by street cops becomes puzzle pieces fitted and analyzed by fusion center analysts and pattern recognition experts. At another level, intelligence flows in to Joint Terrorism Task Forces located around the country.

All of this intelligence gathering on the street brought another significant change in the law enforcement world. The globalization of terrorism forced the line between domestic intelligence and foreign intelligence to become much fuzzier. ILOs and fusion centers had to become more efficient at collecting and sifting intel. Otherwise, information overload could bog down the delivery of real-time intelligence.

Success of New Anti-Terror Legislation
The most profound post-9/11 change to the United States’ legal landscape was the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. The PATRIOT Act, an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, was later supplemented with the Protect America Act of 2007 amendments to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Both laws have been the targets of much criticism and abundant misinformation.

The PATRIOT Act was intended to facilitate information sharing within the FBI, and with the local law enforcement. To that end, it has largely succeeded. One particularly chilling example is the successful identification of six Yemeni-Americans from New York who received terrorist basic training at an al Qaeda base in Afghanistan. Under former rules of engagement, the FBI would have had to wall off investigators looking at the so-called Lacawanna Six’s alleged drug trafficking from other investigators examining the group’s affiliation with al Qaeda. The PATRIOT Act provided for seamless information sharing between investigators, ultimately leading to criminal convictions and incarceration before the group could carry out terror missions on United States soil.

Similar high-profile successes — due in part to the information sharing provisions of the PATRIOT Act — include detection of the Portland Seven, men who attempted to travel to Afghanistan to join al Qaeda combatants, a plot by a former Latino gang member turned al Qaeda terrorist to detonate a “dirty” nuclear bomb, and detection and capture of six Islamist terrorists planning to attack Fort Dix, New Jersey, and massacre U.S. soldiers. To date, over 40 terrorist attacks against the United States have been thwarted, due largely to enhanced information sharing and intelligence gathering permitted by the PATRIOT Act.

Some critics claim that the United States law enforcement community overreacted to 9/11, and built a security plan that was too unwieldy. Newsweek’s editorial writer Fareed Zakaria argues that the nation overbuilt its complex antiterrorism system.

Perhaps the strongest argument to the contrary is the lack of successful terror attacks on U.S. soil. Our counterterrorism efforts have not only thwarted al Qaeda plots, but also ferreted out home-grown would-be terrorists such as the Lackawanna Six, the Portland Seven and those behind the Fort Dix plot. Alert local cops captured members of Jam’yyat Al-Islam Al-Saheeh, a radical Islamist group born in a U.S. prison. Cell members were committing armed robberies to fund terror activities and lifestyles.

A particularly relevant, though complex, question is whether the nation is at risk from Islamist terrorists radicalized in the United States through association with gateway groups. The NYPD published an insightful study of the home-grown threat, available here.

Many myths about the PATRIOT Act swirl in the popular mainstream media.

For example, some have claimed that the FBI uses its authority to review library patronage and other business records on a broad scale. The Act places a federal judge as the gatekeeper to obtaining such records. The Justice Department must report all uses of section 215 of the PATRIOT Act (the provision for obtaining such records) to Congress. The House Judiciary Committee reviews the individual cases and has consistently reported that federal law enforcement officials are using this authority carefully and judiciously. The ACLU has claimed that the PATRIOT Act significantly modified Fourth Amendment jurisprudence by permitting delayed notification of the execution of a search warrant.

Though rarely used, that option is consistent with established Fourth Amendment law. The United States Supreme Court so held over 30 years ago in Dalia v. United States, 441 U.S. 238 (1979).

The 9/11 attacks sped the law enforcement transformation to intelligence-led policing, sometimes referred to as data-driven policing. Community policing gains a new value when used to gather intelligence upon which operational priorities are based. Information collection and collation has become part of the culture of forward-thinking police agencies. The best police agencies create actionable intelligence though their intelligence-led policing architecture. Examples of results include targeting of identified repeat offenders, intensified enforcement in hot spots and zones with high frequency of traffic violations and proactive prevention strategies formulated from solid intelligence analysis.

Where Do We Go Next?
What lies ahead for the street cop? There are more than three quarters of a million cops on the streets of the United States. Those are cops who can fight terrorism one day at a time by seeing and acting upon incidents of heightened suspicion. Police agencies must do a better job at training cops to recognize and evaluate suspicious circumstances that could relate to a terror threat. For example, by knowing the deadly potential of an anhydrous ammonia leak, I’m in a much better position to assess the threat of a suspicious person at the local chemical supply center.

The street cop who knows the beauty supply store manager who passes on information about unusual purchases of hydrogen peroxide can be the early detection tool against a peroxide-based bomb hidden in a backpack and placed in a busy shopping center. Street cops are on the street — street cops are the first to perceive changes that might evolve into a terrorist threat.

American law enforcement agencies are the ultimate first responders. We’re the ones with boots on the ground now, communication systems deployed and operational 24/7 and we have the ability to rapidly rally back up. Our ability to make quick decisions and take prompt action means that local law enforcement agencies can and must be a solid line of defense against terrorist attacks on our communities. We still have progress to make in converging decades of street cop experience and counter-terror fighting skills, but we’re well on track.

For some of us, 9/11 brought personal changes. Some of us lost friends in the attacks. Whether cops in Pennsylvania, New York, or at the Pentagon, we all felt the loss. At the time of the attacks, I was assigned to our state police academy. I saw a marked increase in highly-desirable police recruits. Competition for law enforcement jobs became fierce.

September 11th became personal to me when my son announced that he was enlisting in the military. He heard the same call of a great nation that summoned many excellent young men and women to service in the armed forces and in the police service. After his time in the enlisted ranks, he opted to pursue officer rank in the National Guard, now serving in a military police unit, and a career as a federal special agent. Later, his younger sister followed his example and became a deputy sheriff.

I never intended for either of my kids to be cops. It was theirs to choose. Perhaps this noble profession of arms chose them. They continue a tradition of police service in our family that dates to just after the Civil War, when President Ulysses S. Grant appointed an Army subordinate, my great-great grandfather, as a deputy United States Marshal.

I did not suggest or choose their paths but make no mistake, I could not be prouder than I was when each of my kids pinned on the badge and covenanted to defend the Constitution of the United States and the people who live here. They each signed that same check that you signed — payable in an amount up to and including their own lives — for the safety and security of the United States of America and the community that they serve.

To my kids, now grown up and tough and resilient cops, I remind you that the terrorists brought the fight to us once. Don’t let it happen again. Never, never again.

September 11, 2001, inalterably changed the mission of the cop on the beat. You’re the eyes and ears, and the first line of righteous violence, against those who would bring terror to the land of the free. In the panoply of the United States’ anti-terror strategies, you, all of my brother and sister cops on the street, are the ones I’m betting on. I’ll be right there with you.

God bless the United States of America and every man and woman in her service, whether abroad or at home.

About the author

Ken Wallentine is Vice President and Senior Legal Advisor of Lexipol LLC (www.Lexipol.com), the nation’s leading provider of risk management policies and resources for public safety agencies. He is a retired chief and former prosecutor with over three decades of public service.

Contact Ken Wallentine

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