Terrorism is highly publicized on a regular basis by the news media and consequently generates significant fear in our citizens. Therein lies the dilemma for the police executive in the United States: developing a reasonable response capability without overreacting in the face of declining incidents of terrorism.
Unfortunately, since terrorism is such a highly publicized activity, a whole cadre of "entrepreneurial experts" on the subject has appeared and has exploited that fear in order to provide training, equipment and publications -- much of which is of dubious quality.
Perpetuating a fear that is unwarranted on the basis of fact only assists the terrorists in achieving their purposes, however repugnant they may be to our traditional values. Similarly, equipping local police at airports and other risk locations in the United States with heavy armament and other equipment of warfare would only serve to alarm citizens about the threat of terrorism. When we alter our basic way of life, we have in fact been defeated by the terrorist.
To address this issue appropriately, the fundamental differences between our country and other nations must be recognized. The majority of foreign nations utilize a national police force, which in many cases is either directly associated with the military or operates very much as a military unit. Those countries have but one police authority to rely on for a response to terrorism.
Unlike a national police system, the United States was founded on the principle of local control. Consequently, more than 17,000 independent law enforcement agencies serve our cities, counties, states and federal government.It is almost always the local police who are the first responders to any criminal event. This situation holds true for acts of terrorism.
In many departments, specialized tactical response teams are in place to handle such criminal events as hostage taking and barricaded gunmen. Many other jurisdictions, however, do little to prepare for such occurrences, and many police officials honestly believe that such things cannot happen in their jurisdictions. As they analyze their communities, they simply do not see any likely target for such an activity. What they often overlook is that a potential target -- a dignitary or other person who may serve the purpose of a terrorist -- could visit their community.
Cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York are well prepared for terroristic events. Cooperation between local and federal authorities is on a very high level, and joint response teams have been developed. On balance, however, the level of preparedness for terrorism in most state and local law enforcement agencies is probably less than desirable.
In my opinion, the most important thing that can be done to increase that level of preparedness is to provide accurate, timely and realistic training to key decisions makers -- mayors, city managers, top police executives -- so that as they look objectively at the problem of terrorism in the context of their communities, they can make logical and reasonable choices based upon the resources available. They can also pursue mutual aid compacts and increase communication with other law enforcement entities if information suggests that as an appropriate course of action.
I do not believe that it would be a wise expenditure of funds or in the best interest of the public to have the federal government finance such things as heavy armament for local police, except in those cases in which there is a clearly identified risk in that community and it is beyond the capability of the community to equip its officers accordingly. The most appropriate role for the federal government would be to assist state and local governments in training the key decision makers. This can be done by agencies such as the FBI, which has lead-agency responsibility for response to such occurrences.
It must be kept in mind, however, that it is the local police who most often will respond first to such incidents. To rely on state or federal terrorist response teams is often very ineffective because of the time lapse between the occurrence and the arrival of those teams.
Perhaps the most important consideration is to achieve a reasonable balance between the safety and security of our innocent citizens and realistic assessment of the actual level of the threat to ensure that serious overreaction does not occur.