Monday, April 14, 2008

Anti-Crime? Counter-Terrorism? Both?

One of the risks of talking about fighting terrorism - especially in the public and political spheres - is the temptation to link everything to terrorism. Terrorism is recognized almost universally as an evil, so you can always pick up political and PR points by tying whatever you're doing to "counter-terrorism."

For instance, over the weekend, the Shelby County (TN) Sheriff's Office coordinated a regional "counter-terrorism" initiative called Operation Sudden Impact. From the advance press release:

In an unprecedented event among law enforcement agencies in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, Deputies with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office will coordinate a regional crime suppression initiative this weekend that will involve Officers from more than 50 federal, state and local agencies.

"This is the first time a regional effort of this magnitude has ever been conducted. We are proud to be the coordinating agency for ‘Operation Sudden Impact.’ We’ll use this weekend’s initiative as a starting point to begin a routine of sharing crime information among the various agencies," said Shelby County Sheriff Mark H. Luttrell, Jr.

During “Operation Sudden Impact,” the police agencies from six counties in the tri-state area will simultaneously round up fugitives, conduct traffic safety checkpoints and be involved in other crime abatement programs ...
I like the regional, cooperative approach. I like the teamwork. I like the information-sharing. But ... rounding up fugitives? Traffic checkpoints? Is it accurate to call this a counter-terrorism initiative? Media outlets around the region certainly did. But the links seem somewhat tenuous:
The names of those who are arrested, issued traffic citations or noted in other criminal activity will then be reviewed by Intelligence Officers at the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Homeland Security Operations Center. The crime information will then be forwarded to the State of Tennessee Homeland Security Center in Nashville to see if they might have possible ties to terrorist activity.
The main effort does seem to be an anti-crime effort; and since terrorists are known to commit "precursor crimes" I suppose it's possible to call anything counter-terrorism. But I'm not sure that helps.

For example, does law enforcement expect the public to accept this as counter-terrorism?
Sheriff's Department Patrolman Jason Case Kopacko pulled over a driver for improperly displaying a temporary tag. A closer look revealed the driver had no insurance and no license.

Most criminals caught by the sweep did not have terrorist ties, but law enforcers said you can't be too careful.
Or how about this?
Many agencies put an emphasis on traffic stops. A little after 8 p.m. Saturday in Hickory Hill, Sgt. Chris Harris of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office street crimes unit stopped a white SUV that was booming with music. The driver was driving on a suspended license -- he received a citation -- and there was marijuana residue in the car, but "not enough to weigh out," Harris said.
I suppose it's possible that these drivers could have been linked to terrorism. The Shelby County Sheriff certainly tried to make that case:
Still, every traffic stop holds the potential of netting much more than expected.

"Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma, was stopped because of a busted tail light," said Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell.
Now, when you arrest someone or hand out a citation, it only makes sense to check their name against the state's terrorism database. This ought to be SOP. But this is serious needle-in-the-haystack time. It strains credibility to suggest that traffic checkpoints, targeting random drivers, are a serious counter-terrorism effort. (Worth reading again: This post from HLS Watch.)

However, having said all that, I do like one element of the program as a counter-terrorism initiative:
During the past few months, Deputies with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Homeland Security Bureau have made on-site inspections at various businesses throughout Shelby County to identify ways terrorists might damage the businesses.

About 500 Officers from the various law enforcement agencies also received specialized training about tactics used by terrorists.

Community education sessions were also conducted recently for the public in Shelby, Tipton and Fayette Counties in Tennessee and in Desoto County, Mississippi. The two-hour sessions helped the students learn to spot possible terrorist activity in their neighborhoods.
Unlike the traffic checkpoints, etc., which seem to have a slim link to counter-terrorism, these certainly can. Forewarned is forearmed. But even then, you have to be sure you're providing useful information, instead of adopting a general "see something, say something" model. If citizens don't have a good idea of what to look for, some of them may not trust their own judgment and won't supply any information. Conversely, others will supply useless leads. (
Worth reading again: This post by Bruce Schneier.)

It seems like the agencies did a little of both - supplied some useful information and also asked residents to go fishing for "anything suspicious":
Lt. Perry McEwen with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office said, "Operation Sudden Impact" also is about involving the private sector and citizens in terrorism prevention. It's about people paying attention when something "just doesn't look right" and reporting it to authorities.

Possible indicators of terrorism that FBI intelligence analyst Sarah Pillsbury said citizens should be aware of include: Surveillance of buildings or places; suspicious questioning about employees or security; tests of security; purchases in bulk of items such as fertilizer; suspicious people; "dry runs" such as timing of traffic lights or map making; and the deploying of assets.
I do think businesses and citizens can be helpful partners, and I'd emphasize that their primary utility may be in preventing crime rather than terrorism. The odds of spotting a criminal are much higher than the odds of spotting a terrorist. And by creating an environment that's adverse to criminals, you also help to make it adverse to terrorists as well. (See last week's post about crime prevention in L.A.'s marinas.)

Or perhaps a better way to think about it is: "prevention is prevention." Preventing a crime is just as useful as preventing a potential terrorist incident, and the same process is useful for both.

Anti-crime and counter-terrorism, on the local level, are part and parcel of the same effort. A critical question: Will the law enforcement agencies follow up with the businesses and community groups, or will this be just a one-off effort? These relationships won't open up as trusted channels of information unless the relationships are built over time.

Update 2008-04-15: No word yet on the final tally of terrorism suspects:
The Sheriff’s Department says that altogether 332 people were arrested, 142 of whom are considered fugitives. No word on how many of those arrested may actually have ties to terrorism.

No comments: