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Maintaining Vigilance to Combat Terrorism

Notes From the Field
Date Published
October 1, 2019

As we consider how to formulate our law enforcement response to terrorism, it’s important for us to study our history and learn about why people hate and the roots of this hatred. Sometimes this stretches back through thousands of years of history and just as it has existed beyond our lifetimes, the hatred that lies at the core of terrorism is not a problem that will disappear overnight.

Today, violent extremism is a very real threat and it’s not going to go away. There’s a deep hatred for certain groups of people, groups who are targeted because of their religion, race, or sexual identity.

To prevent acts of terrorism, law enforcement must remain vigilant about what’s going on in our communities. After September 11, 2001, there was a great sense of urgency and awareness about terrorism. When there’s this sense of urgency, it forces us to make sure that we’re doing our due diligence when patrolling our communities.

Terrorism is something that any police leader—particularly in a densely populated area—needs to be aware of and educated on, and has the ability to respond to. As a police leader, we have to pay attention to anything that threatens the safety of our community members.

Prevention as Priority

We often talk about responding to incidents of terrorism, but preventing an incident from occurring in the first place is far more effective than even the best response. Although it can be difficult to quantify, there are many more terrorism-related events that have not occurred — been prevented — than have occurred. A lot of that is due to good policing, community engagement, and the idea of problem solving.

When considering terrorism prevention, law enforcement often promotes the phrase “See Something, Say Something.” I agree with that, but it’s also more complicated. If members of the community don’t trust the police or don’t believe that the police will be able to effectively take action against a terrorist threat, they are unlikely to report suspicious activity. An individual’s trust that they can remain anonymous and that the police will actually follow up on a tip speaks to an agency’s trust and engagement with the community.

Many of the communities that need the police the most trust us the least. In order to build the trust necessary for community members to report suspicious behavior and activities, the police need to actively engage the community.

As leaders, there are a lot of things we can do with communication and building relationships so that more information will be reported, perhaps that previously would’ve been overlooked.

In many cases, there are extensive warning signs that an individual is planning an act of violence. This includes exchanges on social media, email, or over the phone. In hindsight, people realize “Oh yeah, I knew that person was probably going to go off.”

We really need to develop relationships for this exchange of information because a lot of things go unreported.

But it’s so easy to say “build a relationship.” In reality, relationships take time, humility, sacrifice, work, and commitment.

I believe continuity is also important. Having people in place at positions of command for longer periods of time allows for more consistency with the community.

Taking a Stand Against Hate

A really basic thing that police leaders should do in the face of terrorism is to take a very clear stand against hate. We have to have clarity about issues like this to make a statement against hate of any kind as a community.

There are a handful of states—and South Carolina is one of them—that don’t have hate crime legislation. While this might sound like a formality, this legislation allows us to track types of events and codify hate-based crimes, which helps us understand the true extent of hate crimes and can lead to better outcomes in prosecution and penalties. It also sends a clear message to our communities that we won’t tolerate hate. Hate crime legislation isn’t a solution to terrorism, but I do think it’s a good and important step in the right direction.

Another thing that police agencies can do is help improve the physical security of targeted individuals and groups. Really basic steps, like improving information sharing through common databases and installing cameras, can go a long way. Agencies might not always have funds to do these things, but I would encourage law enforcement leaders to be creative about solutions through public-private partnerships.

Maintaining a Sense of Urgency

September 11, 2001, created a sense of urgency to prioritize terrorism; and each additional incident renews that urgency. It’s important for law enforcement leaders to maintain this sense of urgency and prioritize prevention, regardless of recent terrorist incidents. But we also need to be smart and efficient. We need to find a balance where we always respect people’s constitutional rights.

Most importantly, we have to pay attention to what’s going on in our communities. And there’s so much information that we need to rely on each other. Communication amongst our peers at the state and federal level is critical.

Criminals don’t know borders. You don’t need to be in a large city to play a role in keeping our community, and our country safe.

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 law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

Date Published: October 1, 2019