Associate editor Matthew Harwood interviews Lieutenant Andy Mills.
Andy Mills is a lieutenant and commanding officer of Criminal Intelligence and Counter Terrorism for the San Diego Police Department (SDPD). He previously served two tours in the SDPD Gang Unit where he implemented intelligence-led policing, created an in-house intelligence database, and managed the CalGang node. Mills was the 2000 recipient of the Police Executive Research Forum’s national Gary P. Hayes Award for his contributions to improving the quality of police service. In addition, Mills managed one patrol team that won the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing and three other patrols that were Goldstein finalists. Mills recently coauthored an issue brief for the Homeland Security Policy Institute called “Running a Three-Legged Race: The San Diego Police Department, The Intelligence Community, and Counterterrorism.”
What type of terrorism threats does the city of San Diego face?
We have four major threat streams that we look at: violent extremism of all types including jihadism; major Mexican drug cartels; gangs, including street gangs, prison gangs, and transnational gangs; and then antigovernment groups, mostly from the right-wing, like militias. There are others on the radar screen, but those are the main ones.
Did the right-wing terrorism attack in Norway change your methodology in any way?
It did not, and I’ll tell you why: because we already considered the right-wing extremist a serious threat. I was able to tell my chief that we were already on that. That’s the hard thing for people to understand. Violence isn’t a cornerstone for one individual ideology; it's spread across the map. But I do think right-wing extremism is the next big threat that our country is going to have to address if President Obama wins reelection.
In your paper, you wrote that “local police departments remain all but absent from the counterterrorism efforts of America’s intelligence community.” Why is that?
Police departments are mostly absent, minus a few shining examples, from the intelligence process because we have not done our job. We have not focused on setting intelligence priorities nor have we professionalized from the standpoint of collecting human intelligence (HUMINT). What we’ve done is settled for picking the low hanging fruit rather than getting out of our comfort zone and really trying to work high-level sources.
The other part of it is sometimes there’s a lack of trust on the part of our federal partners. When you put 800,000 boots on the ground, it creates a lot of well-intended “white noise.” We get hundreds of calls for service like this: “A Middle-Eastern man taking pictures of a stadium.” No one wants to let a terror tip die without being thoroughly vetted, so FBI agents and San Diego police detectives chase all these leads down that are nonsensical and occur because a tipster doesn’t trust a person of Middle Eastern descent, which is absolutely ridiculous.
Then why is national intelligence integration that important if it leads to this waste of time and resources for local police?
That’s why we’re pushing the threat domain process. When you’re focused on the right threats and you’re identifying a collection plan and a methodology, it gives a granularity and clarity to the officers in the field. They know what to look for.
Just after 9-11, we were directed to be the eyes and ears in the fight against terror. We were looking for terrorists everywhere. Everyone was confused. I mean, I was confused: What do I look for exactly? Consequently, you had 800,000 cops out there looking under every rock for what? It wound up being a Middle Eastern man, when actually it wasn’t our greatest threat at the time. Having a national intelligence enterprise allows us to give clarity to what we’re looking for and why.
What’s the most important change the department had to make to become a more active intelligence player?
There were two steps. One was we needed to truly identify what our threats were. We had no idea. We were still going after the stuff that sounded fun to look for, like La Cosa Nostra. Once we identified the right threats, we retooled our organization to meet those threats. One of the things that we recognized was that our source coverage in those particular threat areas was not very great. What we decided was that if the CIA, the FBI, and the Department of Defense can develop high-level HUMINT sources, we certainly can too. So now we have retooled and specifically look at who can give us the information based on three essential questions: What do I need to know about that threat? Where do I get the information? And what mechanism or person is the best source of that information?
How did integrating the SDPD into the national intelligence community change the way you police day to day?
Developing HUMINT sources and assessing our needs on a continuous basis leads us to roll out departmentwide requests for information. For instance, we have a series of burglaries that we’re looking at. And it’s a particularly aggressive burglary crew. We don’t know who they are; we just know they’re gangsters. So we send out a memo to all investigators that handle sources and say “We want you to run this past your sources to see if they can identify who this is.”
You have a past in antigang initiatives. Why are antigang initiatives considered a model for countering violent extremism?
I think because some have assessed that the qualities of someone who has been radicalized are the same qualities of a person who joins a gang.
Do you agree with that?
I think there’s some truth to that. You don’t get real stable people, for the most part, joining the jihadi movement. Research shows the jihadi movement is all over the map. We’re not seeing one consistent profile of people. Some are mentally unstable. Some are from great families. It’s the same with street gangs though. It’s really hard to predict.
Some people would like to think solving the homegrown violent extremism threat is as simple as building a new community policing program, like the anti-gang programs in the past. While important and part of the solution, it is not the only solution. I have not read any data to suggest the number of gang members has decreased over the past decade; however, violence has. And isn’t that the goal of countering violent extremism? It requires a holistic solution to a very complex problem, including tough enforcement, community relations, education, and assimilation into the greater community.
Is it possible that becoming a national intelligence player could harm the trust that police officers have built in the communities they serve?
I’m certainly wary and concerned about that. We have the right controls in place to make sure we’re not violating people’s trust or violating their civil liberties. We are very clear that we have standards that cannot be broken for the sake of expediency or just because we are in the war on terror.
For instance, people ask whether we’re spying on mosques. The answer is no, we are not. In fact, we have a clear internal protocol that says we have to establish enough cause to go into any place of worship, whether it’s a mosque or a church.
We are very clear that that would take a high burden of probable cause and would need authorization from the highest levels of our department. That’s not something we would undertake lightly if it were ever to take place. There’s so many other ways to get that information that we don’t need to do that.
It’s not illegal to hold radical, even violent, views if you don’t act on them. How are you engaging people at risk of violent radicalization?
It’s something we’re working on. We have a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, where we take a look at people we believe are susceptible, based on lifestyle, to radicalized thought and ideology, especially people of tender years. And we’re using a mentoring program, kind of modeled on Pulling Levers out of Boston (which delivers direct police outreach to violent, at-risk gang youth), to get these people into a place where they can get help before they get to that point.