|911 is still our first response to terrorism|
Until recently, they continued to sift through the rubble. No other government in the world gives as much responsibility to local emergency personnel - whether it is a case of a natural or a man-made disaster. Therefore it is imperative that any federal proposals to address terrorism fulfill the needs of not only the federal law enforcement agencies, but the local agencies as well.
In the case of terrorism, local police can play a critical role in gathering information on suspects to help prevent further incidents. Many have vital knowledge about individuals living in their communities, in part because citizens often feel more comfortable talking with local officers. Local departments thus are often in receipt of invaluable information about the communities they protect - exactly the type of data federal law enforcement agencies are trying to gather now.
The exchange of information between local agencies and some federal agencies unfortunately has been plagued by uneven responses. Too often a successful collaboration is largely dependent on individual personalities and their willingness to share information rather than institutional policy. We need more mutual trust among agencies as well as guidelines for protecting sensitive information. This was confirmed by a recent survey of police executives that found that local law enforcement is most in need of intelligence gathering and sharing.
The attorney general has taken a good first step in improving coordination of agencies by instructing U.S. attorneys in each region to create joint anti-terrorism task forces of state and federal agencies. These task forces should be integrated with task forces that already have had success, such as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces and regional crime analysis information systems. Doing so will build on existing expertise, reduce redundancy and provide a broad foundation for information sharing.
Those of us in the local law enforcement community know we can make a valuable contribution to preventing terrorism by building on our community policing networks to exchange and gather information with citizens. But we can't do this without federal assistance. The Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services in the Department of Justice is positioned to be at the forefront of this push.
COPS has been providing support to local law enforcement agencies and understands their needs. It can provide and coordinate regional meetings and offer technical assistance, equipment grants and other critical support. At the Pentagon, more than ten local law enforcement agencies were on hand during the initial response. Communications became strained when cell phone lines were overloaded, and agencies with equipment different from Arlington County's arrived and were unable to communicate with officials already at the scene.
Arlington County is fortunate that it and neighboring Fairfax County have mobile emergency-response command centers. These allowed the more than 20 police and fire departments on the scene to communicate. But without federal assistance, few departments can afford these $250,000 vehicles. We must identify and reduce such obstacles to information sharing to maximize our effectiveness. No one is certain what type of attack terrorists might be planning against us next, and trying to map out all possible scenarios is impossible.
The only certainty is that local law enforcement still will be responsible for responding first to any and all threats and attacks. After all, what is "homeland security" if it is not the local cops?
-- Edward Flynn is chief of the Arlington County Police Department.