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Police Departments

Author: cfr.org editorial staff
Updated: January 2006

Has the job of America’s police departments changed since September 11?

Yes. While the core mission of police departments—responding to emergencies and ensuring public safety—remains the same, experts say the September 11 attacks triggered a shift in policing priorities around the country. Many police departments are devoting increased resources to preparing for terrorist attacks and gathering intelligence to head off possible threats. In the event of a terrorist attack, police officers would be among the first emergency workers on the scene: on September 11, thousands of New York City police officers rushed to the World Trade Center, and twenty-three were killed when the towers collapsed. Police departments are also often the first to respond to and investigate civilian reports of terrorism-related criminal activity.

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Was terrorism a major concern for police departments before September 11?

Not really. Experts say that following attacks such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building, and the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, some big-city departments did begin to give more attention to security in certain buildings and transportation systems. For the most part, however, terrorism in the United States was considered a remote possibility, even in urban areas. Broader measures to prevent or prepare for an attack, such as improving intelligence sharing among law enforcement agencies or refining disaster plans, were generally not taken. Many local governments were facing budget deficits and focusing on trimming costs. Moreover, experts say that police departments generally thought the threat of terrorism could be handled by the FBI, the lead U.S. counterterrorism agency, and the CIA, the lead U.S. intelligence agency.

How have police departments changed since September 11?

While their efforts vary according to their respective community’s resources and perceived vulnerability, many police departments have:

  • strengthened liaisons with federal, state, and local agencies, including fire departments and other police departments.
  • refined their training and emergency response plans to address terrorist threats, including attacks with weapons of mass destruction.
  • increased patrols and shored up barriers around landmarks, places of worship, ports of entry, transit systems, nuclear power plants, and so on.
  • more heavily guarded public speeches, parades, and other public events.
  • created new counterterrorism divisions and reassigned officers to counterterrorism from other divisions such as drug enforcement.
  • employed new technologies, such as X-ray-like devices to scan containers at ports of entry and sophisticated sensors to detect a chemical, biological, or radiation attack.

For the most part, the threat of terrorism has not led to large-scale hiring of new police officers. Counterterrorism measures put into place by the New York City Police Department (NYPD), which has firsthand experience in handling terrorist attacks and continues to respond to a flurry of threats, have made it a national and world model for police preparedness and training, as outlined in a comprehensive article published in the New Yorker in July 2005.

How is the NYPD fighting terrorism?

Its new measures include:

  • creating a counterterrorism division and hiring a deputy police commissioner for counterterrorism to oversee related training, prevention, and investigations, and to work with state and federal agencies.
  • hiring a deputy commissioner for intelligence and an in-house intelligence officer for each of the NYPD’s seventy-six precincts.
  • training the department’s 39,000 officers in counterterrorism, including how to respond to a biological, chemical, or radiation attack.
  • assigning detectives to train abroad with police departments in Israel, Canada, and potentially other countries in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia.
  • assigning one detective to Interpol, the France-based international police agency, and two detectives to FBI headquarters in Washington.
  • placing command centers throughout the city to back up headquarters in the event of a large-scale terrorist attack.
  • acquiring equipment such as protective suits, gas masks, and portable radiation detectors.
How do police departments work with the FBI?

Primarily through Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), which bring local and federal law enforcement officers together to respond to and investigate terrorism-related activity. The first JTTF was set up in 1979 with members of the NYPD and the FBI; the FBI established or authorized JTTFs in each of its fifty-six field offices.

Did federal, state, and local agencies share information effectively before September 11?

No. Experts say the CIA, the FBI, and local law enforcement failed to communicate before the attacks—this was the major finding in the long-anticipated 9/11 Commission’s report. Many experts attribute the lack of cooperation to mistrust and cultural differences between the agencies. Also, investigations of the way New York’s police and fire departments coordinated their response on September 11 have revealed numerous breakdowns in communication and command systems that may have cost many lives.

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