Local law enforcement is the first defense against violent domestic Islamist extremism, a panel of the nation's top cops said today before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
The hearing discussed the role of law enforcement in countering violent Islamist extremism.
"No agency knows their landscape better than local law enforcement; we were designed and built to be the eyes and ears of communities—the First Preventers of terrorism," said Deputy Chief Michael Downing of the Los Angeles Police's Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau.
One major role for police to play, said Downing, is that of educator. Discerning lessons from Europe, police must teach communities about the dangers of extremism and combat hurtful rumors and myths that may alienate communities already at risk of radicalization. Alienated communities, he reminded legislators, are a breeding ground and safehaven for terrorists, an important lesson from Europe that Americans must learn.
The LAPD has created the position "Terrorism Liaison Officers" (TOCs) to educate police personnel and the community about what signs may indicate an individual's or communities' adherence to violent extremism.
Officers at the LAPD's Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau are trained by outside experts to be culturally sensitive to Muslims and knowledgeable of Islam when in the field.
The "ultimate goal" of this culturally sensitive approach, said Downing, is to preserve the Muslim-American community's continued loyalty and good citizenship to the country.
In preserving good will in Muslim communities, law enforcement is, in fact, advancing its intelligence agenda by fostering an environment that maximizes tips and leads surfacing from those same communities. The long-term solution to this radicalization problem will come from Muslim communities themselves.
In Kansas City, Missouri, the police department has developed the Counter Terrorism Patrol Strategy Project which translated current police and investigation methods into the counterterrorism context.
One major part of the strategy is the Community Oriented Policing (COP) component, which brings together personnel well-versed in COP tenets to use their experience to identify suspicious behavior related to terrorism. Neighborhood relations are stressed so trust can be built, the goal being increased information-sharing between police and the Muslim community.
The project's officers also get extensive schooling on Islam like LAPD counterterrorism officers.
"Understanding Islamic culture," said Major Thomas Daily of the Homeland Security Division of the Kansas City Police Department, "enables the officers to better understand the differences between westerners and the people of Islam which is useful in interactions, gaining their confidence, and building relationships."
Witnesses also spoke about how their departments built up their intelligence collection and sharing capabilities, linking in with local, state, and federal authorities.
In 2005, the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) created a Homeland Security Bureau (HSB), which is its one-stop shop for its intelligence activities. Critical intelligence collected and analyzed within is sent to other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies when pertinent. The HSB also produces security and vulnerability assessments to identify potential terrorist targets.
Kansas City's multi-agency Terrorism Early Warning (TEW) Center provides another example of a fusion center receiving intelligence from all levels and sectors of government, where the intelligence received and analyzed is run through databases linked to regional, state, and federal agencies.
During testimony, the LAPD's Daily unveiled a new community mapping project that will collect demographic information on the city's Muslim communities to help police better understand the similarities and differences within.
"It is our hope to identify communities, within the larger Muslim community," said Daily, "which may be susceptible to violent ideologically-based extremism and then use a full-spectrum approach guided by an intelligence-led strategy."
He said the information will be collected with the help of local Muslim groups to keep the process open and transparent.
Taken together, these local efforts are critical to fighting terrorism, said Michael Ronczkowski, major of the MDPD's HSB, because "local law enforcement is far more likely to encounter an Islamic extremist during the performance of their daily duties than a federal investigator."
Ronczkowski singled out traffic stops as an area where more police attention should be focused. "Traffic stops, traffic crashes, and citations (parking and moving) are all opportunities to observe behaviors and actions that may be patterns of extremist actions."
He noted that three of the 19 hijackers that attacked the United States on 9-11 had been stopped by police but let go, including the plot's operational leader, Mohammed Atta.