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The Importance of Community Policing in Preventing Terrorism

Notes From the Field
Date Published
March 3, 2020

As Director of the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies (CMVRS), a former member of the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorist Task Force in New York City, and a first responder to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, I’ve learned that acts of terrorism shape the rest of your life.

I’ve devoted much of my life to wrestling with the issues associated with terrorism and targeted violence: How do we prepare, how do we prevent attacks, how do we respond, and how do we recover from these tragedies?

We’ve witnessed the devastating impacts to individuals and communities that come out of terrorist and targeted attacks. For victims, their families, and first responders, the suffering can last a lifetime, maybe even impacting generations to come.

Threats of terrorism come from a variety of sources – organized groups outside the country, those inside the country, and the lone attacker. Regardless of the source, community policing is critical to identifying those who are planning to carry out acts of violence, preparing communities to respond, aiding public safety officials in the response, and when acts cannot be prevented, helping communities heal and recover.

The Importance of Community Policing and Making Connections

Law enforcement officers who are connected to the communities they serve have the ability to identify individuals who may embrace an extremist ideology, radicalize, and pose a threat of violence against individuals or facilities.

Much has been said over the years about community policing and how the trusting relationships developed and maintained at the community level have proven successful in preventing crime. I believe these relationships have also proven incredibly successful in identifying individuals and groups that pose a threat of targeted violence to our communities.

As a collective group, law enforcement needs to recognize the importance of community relationships if we are going to identify individuals who pose a threat to our national security. Developing and maintaining trusting relationships are the foundation of community policing and are essential to preventing crime, terrorism, and targeted violence.

Law enforcement agencies need to identify challenges, issues, and concerns that emerge at the neighborhood level by gathering real-time data. Armed with this information, law enforcement leaders must engage community members to develop and implement policies and strategies to prevent crime, terrorism, and targeted violence.

For example, CMVRS partnered with the Boston Police Department, the North American Family Institute, and United Somali Youth to implement a Youth and Police Initiative Plus (YPIP) program. The goals of YPIP were to build trust between youth and police officers while fostering community resilience to radicalization among Somali youth in the Boston area.

From April 2018 through June 2019, more than 80 youth and 45 police officers participated in the program, which brought youth and law enforcement together to learn more about one another. During our sessions, groups discussed stereotypes, why police officers act in certain ways in specific situations, how officers could better respond, and effective communication strategies.  

The youth shared information about the Somali community, the Muslim religion, and the challenges faced by youth in Boston. By the end of the program, both groups expressed praise for its structure, the dialogue that it created, the trust that was built, and the cultural understanding that was shared among the participants and their families.

YPIP demonstrates what I mean by developing trusting relationships. A community-based counterterrorism program should be based on human relations — seeing people as people, not identifying them as police officers or by their religious or cultural beliefs.

If we can establish trust with each other and among ourselves, we have the opportunity to circumvent extremist recruiting, identify people who are withdrawn from their community, and find pathways to provide them with services and support.  

A Whole Community Approach

A whole community approach is necessary to prepare for acts of terrorism and targeted violence. Law enforcement must engage public and mental health officials, educators, fire departments, EMS, emergency managers, faith leaders, businesses, not-for-profit organizations, and community organizations in prevention, response, and recovery planning. Each and every member of the community has an important role in identifying persons in need of support and service and the resources that can be provided in response to a crisis event.

Planning efforts must identify community resources and engage them in exercises and drills, so that during a crisis, they are readily available and have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities in response to an act of terrorism or other critical incident. The time to build and strengthen relationships is before a crisis – during an event it is too late. 

The value of community planning and preparedness has been demonstrated in many of the critical incident reviews conducted by CMVRS. In San Bernardino, Orlando, Kalamazoo, Broward County, and Charlotte, the collaboration and coordination among law enforcement, fire, EMS, hospitals, government officials, and community organizations saved lives and continues to play an integral role in the recovery from these horrific events.

The National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies provides a nonpartisan, independent organization in which like-minded individuals can come together to advance research-based policy, strategy, and operations to protect our communities from the threat of terrorism and targeted violence.

There isn’t one right answer to respond to the challenges of terrorism. However, community policing provides a model that is built on collaboration, respect, and trust. A whole community approach is essential to preventing terrorism, preparing for crisis, responding effectively, and helping individuals and communities recover from these horrific events.

About Notes From the Field

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.

Date Published: March 3, 2020