Public Safety & Justice

Policing in the Post-9/11 Era

In America’s largest Arab community, police are pioneering a new way to fight terrorism by strengthening neighborhood ties. Plus, more 9/11 coverage.
by | August 31, 2011
 

Governing's sister publications Government Technology and Emergency Management have partnered to provide complementary articles on the troubles of creating a national communications network for public safety agencies and the return on the nation's $635 billion investment in homeland security since 9/11.

Just minutes after American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Ron Haddad’s phone rang. It was his boss, Detroit Police Chief Charles E. Wilson, who was in the Pentagon when the plane hit. “He called me right away,” says Haddad, who at the time was a precinct commander. “He said, ‘What do you think we should do?’”

Haddad and Wilson were hardly alone. In cities across the country, the question on every law enforcement professional’s mind at that moment was a very local one: “What do we do now?”

Their worlds had turned sideways. Rumors and uncertainty about possible follow-up attacks were sweeping the nation. A backlash against American Arabs was brewing. Little solid information about the attack was available. Yet police departments found themselves catapulted into a new role: front-line defenders in the fight against domestic terrorist attacks, a job that had long been considered the purview of the federal government.

The first concern in every major city across the country was assessing what other targets terrorists might hit. Police departments scrambled to develop lists of vulnerable, high-value targets and ways to protect them. In Detroit, that included such assets as the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, a massive water plant, an oil refinery, a chemical factory and multiple sports arenas. At the same time, Haddad says his department was also dealing with a backlash against Arab-American-owned businesses, which were under sporadic attack. So his department was desperately trying to maintain community calm.

Those two tasks frame how policing in the U.S. has evolved since 9/11. There’s been a push to improve local police departments’ capacity to gather and analyze intelligence on targets and threats. In addition, there’s a new focus on how departments interact with their own citizens, who many in law enforcement now view as critical partners in preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Most fundamentally, 9/11 forever changed the mission of police departments in the nation’s larger metropolitan areas. With the exception of a handful of police professionals in cities like New York, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, “Nobody in American policing was focused on international terrorism prior to 9/11,” says William J. Bratton, who headed up the New York City and Los Angeles police departments, and is currently co-chair of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Homeland Security Advisory Council.

In the aftermath of 9/11, two challenges became blatantly obvious. First, the emerging terrorism threat was going to require more local police involvement. Second, there was an increasing number of homegrown terrorists. “You had several pressures occurring that have brought the local police more into the area of terrorism,” Bratton says. “It was now not only ‘homeland security.’ It was increasingly ‘hometown security.’”

Terrorism itself is a complicated topic if only because what constitutes “terrorism” isn’t clear. Were the shootings at Columbine High School a terrorist act? Was the attempted murder of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- and the collateral homicides -- a terrorist act?

It’s an important question to ask because it underlies how police approach -- and the public views -- atrocious attacks. In some cases, actual or planned violence is part of an organized effort to take down the U.S. government and its economy. That was certainly the case with Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-born U.S. citizen who planned a coordinated attack on the New York City subway system with the help of al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. In other cases, attacks are aimed at specific government and corporate policies, which is what motivates violent actions by some animal rights and environmental activists. In both of these cases, the organizations and individuals are committing acts of terrorism. But in numerous other attacks, the violence being contemplated or executed may not have any grounding in politics or policy -- or even in reality. It may be straightforward criminality or actions stemming from severe mental illness.

That is the core of a dilemma faced by police departments today: They must determine how to defend against organized terrorism as well as the seemingly random acts of either criminal, crazy or just wildly disgruntled individuals. In the wake of 9/11, the focus of police departments swung sharply toward defending against organized terrorism. Metropolitan police departments started improving partnerships with federal agencies and gathering huge volumes of information based on the assumption that given the right raw data and their ability to analyze it well, law enforcement could head off organized terrorist attacks.

The most obvious manifestation of that approach -- one that was fueled by billions in federal dollars -- was the creation of “fusion centers.” Nationally 72 fusion centers have been outfitted and staffed to promote the collection and sharing of intelligence among and between local, state and federal agencies. Fusion centers epitomize an approach to terrorism prevention that puts a premium on sucking in and sifting through massive amounts of information from all levels of law enforcement and other sources, formal and informal, as a way to stay ahead of terrorists.

Recent arrests of two suspected terrorists in the Seattle metro region are credited in part to Seattle’s fusion center, after a tip was passed along from a man the two had approached about buying guns and grenades. “That information came to the attention of a detective assigned to the fusion center by the Seattle Police Department,” said Seattle police Lt. Ron Leavell in a local news report.

But fusion centers have their limitations. New York City is widely recognized as having the most sophisticated fusion center in the country. Yet when Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old Pakistan-born immigrant, parked an SUV filled with explosives in the heart of Times Square, it wasn’t information drawn from a fusion center that thwarted the attack. It was the combination of the pyrotechnical incompetence of the would-be terrorist and a couple of alert street vendors that brought the vehicle to the attention of police. The whole incident came way too close to being a horrific example of the first maxim of anti-terrorism work as articulated by international terrorism expert Peter Beering: “We have to get it right every time; terrorists only have to get it right once.”

That tenet is what makes Ron Haddad interesting. The former Detroit precinct commander became the police chief of Dearborn, Mich., in 2008, where he has since gained a national reputation as an advocate for and an effective practitioner of a very different approach to terrorism prevention. It relies less on gathering tons of intelligence and more on partnering with citizens and the community as the first line of defense in both homeland and hometown security.

In that regard, Haddad, who like Bratton is also a member of the DHS’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, has a particularly vexing task: winning the trust of the city’s Arabic and Muslim minorities. Dearborn, with 98,000 residents, is home to the largest per capita population of Arab and Muslim Americans of any city in the United States. Around 30 percent of its population speaks Arabic languages. Given that profile, Dearborn is potentially both an incubator and a target of homegrown and foreign-sponsored terrorism.

The police response has been to pull people of different religions and ethnicities into a citywide network of aware and active citizens -- that effort is especially noteworthy when it comes to involvement with citizens of Arabic descent.

“The Arab and Muslim community finds this continuing need to assert that they’re Americans and that they’re not part of the enemy,” Haddad says. “We try to defuse that by telling them, ‘You don’t have to explain that; we’re all on even ground.’”

Yet reassurances of an even ground are hardly sufficient in winning the trust of the city’s Arabic and Muslim minorities -- a trust that is essential to their joining the fight against terrorism. What Dearborn police officials have learned is to adjust policies, value new and perhaps unorthodox partnerships, and respond to street-level warning signs. An important element of this effort is to signal to those in the Arabic and Muslim communities that the police aren’t some occupying force ready to pounce, but that they are there to protect and serve.

This is a tricky proposition, because it means convincing a population that could easily and quickly become isolated, defensive and suspicious (and in some places, this is exactly what has happened) that they’re an integral part of the bigger community. To do this, Dearborn has, among other things, softened its policing approach when it comes to dealing with budding criminals and terrorists. For example, in one of the city’s Yemini neighborhoods, there was a group of kids who had been identified as “ripe for the picking,” as Haddad puts it. They were skipping school and associating with “wannabe gangbangers” from Detroit.

People in the neighborhood wanted the police to do something, Haddad says, but they didn’t “want us to give these kids a criminal record.” So the department’s approach has been to work with schools and other agencies to get the youngsters back in school and back on track. But for that to work in the first place, Haddad says, “the community has to have a sense of trust that they can come to the police or their local government.”

Another way that the city of Dearborn has helped connect key interests in support of homeland and hometown security is through its Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Ethnic Sensitivity (BRIDGES) program. BRIDGES includes members of the Arab-American community, and also federal, state and local government officials.

It began right after 9/11 with the convening of Arab-American advocacy groups, the FBI, the state police, the Dearborn police and other community members. The idea, says Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly, is that “everyone could come to the table to try and work through how we could all support the same goals.”

According to O’Reilly, BRIDGES has been an effective mechanism for building widespread trust between and among the Arab-American community, other community members and government officials. “It’s allowed us to have a dialogue about our shared interests versus everyone holding their cards against their chests and saying, ‘Well, let me see what you got.’”

A big part of winning the trust of the Arab and Muslim population has also meant trying to get federal agencies like the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to back off and smarten up. The threat of deportation is a huge issue in any immigrant community, so if going to the police means arriving on USCIS’s radar, that’s a potential deal breaker when it comes to reporting suspicious activity to city officials. Dearborn officials have reassured residents that a call to the police doesn’t instantly mean a background check.

Another huge problem in the greater Detroit metro region was the way that Arab and Muslim Americans were being treated when they crossed the U.S. and Canadian border. Dearborn sits near the busiest northern border crossing, and when U.S. customs officers “hold a Muslim woman in custody along with her kids for six or seven hours because they come up with a match for her name on a watch list, that’s a problem,” O’Reilly says. But since the city held meetings with high-level customs officials from Washington, D.C., the border-crossing problem has eased.

Aside from the city officials involved in the program, other Dearborn leaders see the overall approach as positive. When the national media focused on Dearborn in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to see what kind of Arab-American backlash there might be, “They didn’t find the story they thought they were going to find,” says Fran Helner, pastoral associate at the Sacred Heart Parish and spokeswoman for the Dearborn Area Ministerial Association, which promotes religious tolerance. “There is a strong feeling among our whole community that we need to be open and accepting of each other.”

Statistics appear to bear out Dearborn’s approach. More than 80 percent of foiled terrorist plots across the country were discovered via initial clues provided from law enforcement or the general public, according to a recent Institute for Homeland Security Solutions study of terrorist attacks against the U.S. from 1999 to 2009.

Dearborn has experienced it first-hand. A plot to set off something like a car bomb in front of the nation’s largest mosque, the Mosque of America, was foiled thanks to a local restaurant owner taking seriously comments he overheard at his bar. A likely plot to gun down Wayne State University Medical School staff was foiled by a group of Arab-American kids who saw suspicious activity at a local park and reported it. “Those kids had no hesitation calling 911,” says O’Reilly, “because it’s not like the police are the enemy.”

Increasingly, it appears that other major metropolitan police departments are coming around to the Dearborn approach to homeland security. “We realized we had a lot of gaps from the prevention point of view,” says Michael Downing, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and head of counterterrorism efforts for the city. “We have to leverage community support. We can’t do this without them.”

Indeed, in July 2010, DHS officials launched the “If You See Something, Say Something” public awareness campaign. It aims to rally citizens as first-line defenders against terrorism. In fact, Haddad was part of the Homeland Security Advisory Council subcommittee that helped develop the campaign. “Secretary [Janet] Napolitano gave us a clear mandate,” he says. “She believes counterterrorism could best be fortified and expanded from the basic community policing level -- from the grass roots.”

William Bratton calls that “force multiplication.” If 40,000 feds keeping an eye out for terrorism is a good thing, then 800,000 state and local law enforcement officials is even better. Best of all is enlisting the help of 300 million-plus U.S. residents. For Haddad, the 98,000 citizens of Dearborn are his force multiplication. “If somebody’s going to find out something that’s going on,” he says, “it’s going to be somebody local, and that’s what we’ve zeroed in on.”

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