Law Enforcement News

Vol. XXVIII, Nos. 589, 590 A publication of John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY December 15/31, 2002

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In this issue:

Don’t tell New York City, but the nationwide crime rate is going up.
Once again, it’s a year for serial killers.
Child-snatchings are big news, but are they a big problem?
Amber Alert is getting nationwide green light.
Police wipe a smile from mailbox bomber’s face.
Beltway snipers continue to confound police expectations.
Legislative probes point to FBI, CIA lapses.
Police catch terrorist “sleepers” napping.
Homeland security is demanding still more of local police agencies.
The courts are wrestling with anti-terror issues in various forms.
Is there a new federal perspective on consent decrees?
Agencies try harder to fill depleted ranks.
Bottom lines will get worse before getting better.
The Cabinet is about to get a new anti-terror look.
Justice by the Numbers: A numerical profile of criminal justice in the United States in 2002.
Around The Nation: A coast-to-coast roundup of police news.

 
Continued from page 1

What a difference 12 months can make

     of Law Enforcement entered into a partnership with INS to train 35 municipal officers, sheriff’s deputies and FDLE agents, who would be assigned to regional anti-terrorism task forces and authorized to stop, question and detain illegal aliens. Other jurisdictions flirted with the idea. Still, there were clear divisions among law enforcement officials on the issue, with some placing local priorities over the national interest. Many departments, such as Houston and Tulsa, pointed to the help illegal immigrants give them with investigations and how difficult the job would become if officers had to aggressively target those in this country illegally. Some, such as Pasadena, Calif., have taken a more moderate approach, allowing officers under certain conditions to arrest and detain illegal immigrants for a prescribed period, pending notification of the INS. By June, the Justice Department had backed away from its plan to have police enforce general immigration laws. Not lost on some police observers was the irony that local police, who are often quick to accuse the FBI of not sharing information and other resources in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, are now themselves unwilling to share information with the bureau.

     One protocol that has been worked out, which does not require changes to existing local law enforcement practices, would focus on those who enter from specially designated countries, linking their admission documents to a National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. Failure to complete the required registration within 30 days would be considered a federal misdemeanor, and the names of those aliens will be entered into the NCIC as “Wanted,” to be handled by local officers as a “hit.” Such hits require that local INS offices respond in a timely manner. Given the track record of INS and its chronic shortage of personnel, with some 1,800 agents to handle 8 million illegal immigrants, it is not surprising that this protocol allows federal authorities to ask local law enforcement agencies to detain the individual, for which they would be reimbursed. Whether locals respond affirmatively when asked remains to be seen, but given the number of federal agents assigned to the task, without local cooperation on some level, it would appear that INS, no matter how it is reconstituted, will continue to have its hands full, if not tied.

     As Congressional scrutiny bore down on the nation’s intelligence community and its pre-9/11 lapses and shortcomings, the phrase “connect-the-dots” became a part of regular news copy. Inquiries revealed an intelligence community whose components don’t communicate with each other and, as importantly, don’t communicate within their own agencies. Political correctness and legal restraints are said to have hampered the FBI’s ability to go forward with investigations or share information with other intelligence agencies. The hearings also showed the FBI to lack focus when it came to terrorism, compounded by insufficient personnel and inadequate technology (with agents using 386-level computers with no external e-mail).

     There were a number of agents who uncovered evidence of potential terrorist threats and issued warnings to their superiors — warnings that went unheeded. As one FBI field agent recently put it, “Headquarters is like a black hole. Information goes in but nothing comes out.” Just what happened to their warnings remains unclear, with some members of Congress asserting that the bureau and the CIA were still covering up those who had impeded pre-9/11 investigations. To be sure, the inquiries did not go far enough, having failed to look into lapses by such agencies as INS, the State Department, motor vehicle offices and the Federal Aviation Administration, all of which made critical mistakes. Yet another investigation began as the year ended, and the FBI found itself in the embarrassing position of having to remind some field offices that their top priority should be terrorism, while at the same time fending off suggestions that another agency similar to England’s MI-5 be created to deal with domestic intelligence-gathering. With almost two dozen federal entities already collecting intelligence of various kinds, it is clear that channeling relevant information to one place — a so-called “fusion room” — is still far from reality.

     The year did witness the creation of a new super-agency, a Cabinet-level department whose work force of 170,000 would come from the ranks of 22 agencies and take years to fully implement. The Department of Homeland Security, which represents the largest government overhaul in decades, would not include the FBI, CIA or National Security Agency, which many criticized as a serious omission. Although most agree that the integration of federal agencies was necessary to speed and streamline the dissemination of information and services, significant questions and concerns remain. Just how will this new department interact with the multitude of intelligence agencies, and with local law enforcement? Will pre-existing agency loyalties and priorities affect the interaction of the workforce? As important, will the diminution of collective bargaining rights for workers — an issue that delayed legislation to create the new agency — lead to deflated employee morale? Can an agency with so much responsibility in such a critical area afford to have employees that are unhappy?

     Things remain murky on the legal front, although some pragmatic clarity was provided when Justice Department guidelines were amended in May to allow the FBI to use commercial databases in investigations. Prior to the change, agents could not even use a common search engine like Google to look for terrorist activity. In November a decision by a special appellate panel of the Foreign Intelligence Court of Review validated the broad surveillance powers under anti-terrorism laws passed in 2001. For federal law enforcement officials, this decision razed what some called an “artificial barrier” between investigation and intelligence that had deterred the sharing of information. Even prior to the ruling, the CIA had begun increasing its presence at FBI field offices.

     At the local level, however, such barriers still exist, as demonstrated in New York, where the NYPD asked a federal district court judge in September to lift 17-year-old restrictions that curtail police monitoring of political activity. These restrictions require investigators to have specific information that a crime will be committed or is being planned before they can monitor such political activities. Such restrictions exist elsewhere, as in Seattle, but even when these fetters are loosened, as was the case in Chicago last year, police remain reluctant to use the authority.

     If police needed any reminders, a number of arrests, accomplished with varying degrees of local input, served notice that terrorist threats can take root and grow in one’s own backyard. Suspects with links to the al Qaeda terrorist network were rounded up in Portland, Seattle, Detroit and Lackawanna, N.Y., while the arrest of one-time Chicago gang-banger Jose Padilla helped assure that the words “dirty bomb” would be added to the law enforcement lexicon for the foreseeable future.

     Terror of a different, more conventional kind seized the nation’s attention in October, beginning with a seemingly random sniper shooting in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. Over the next three weeks, a total of 10 people would die and 3 more would be wounded, all while engaging in patterns and practices of everyday life. As the sprawling, complex investigation would later reveal, the spree began in effect in Washington state, spanning thousands of miles and going on to claim lives in Louisiana and Alabama as well as Maryland and Virginia. The investigation that led to the arrests of John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, inevitably focused attention on the ability of law enforcement agencies at a variety of levels to work cooperatively, a task that was accomplished for the most part. It also focused attention on the difficulties police confront when sifting through thousands of tips, some of which, in hindsight, would have proven to be valuable, while others turned out to be red herrings. Law enforcement used the three-week reign of terror as a test of local preparedness for handling emergencies, demonstrating yet again that locals will be the first to respond when the public faces imminent danger. The killings also rekindled debate about the usefulness of ballistic fingerprinting and the importance of maintaining and sending information to the nation’s crime databases.

     The Beltway sniper shootings left a number of criminal profilers sporting egg on their faces, as some predictions proved to be wildly off the mark. There were two suspects, not one; they were black, not white; they drove a dark sedan, not a white van; they were out-of-state drifters, not local residents with mundane jobs.

     Distinct from criminal profiling and its role in such crimes as the Beltway shootings, racial profiling still crept into the year’s news in some jurisdictions, often with the first issuance and analysis of traffic-stop data. New Jersey reluctantly made such data public in March, only to leave officials rattled when researchers found that black drivers tended to speed more than whites on a certain stretches of highway. Officials tried unsuccessfully to blame the researchers for a flawed methodology, which included using teams to determine the race of motorists from more than 26,000 photos taken of speeders and non-speeders alike. Even with many other localities releasing the first analyses of traffic-stop data, the once-heated rhetoric surrounding racial profiling was more muted in 2002 than it had been in years — perhaps an outgrowth of 9/11.

     It would be an understatement to say that law enforcement faces a challenge in the year ahead. Declining budgets, severe labor shortages, continuing terrorist threats and, for some, resurgent Part I crime all combine to equal hard times. With local governments experiencing their worst financial straits in decades, the resources are simply not there to get up to speed. Personnel shortages remain a source of concern as officers continue to be called up for National Guard and military reserve duty. And, to the consternation of some officials, local departments will also have to pick up the slack as the FBI divests itself of some former responsibilities.

     Law enforcement continues to be frustrated by local and regional computer systems, many representing large investments of time and money, that fail to live up to expectations and are difficult to use and maintain. Many major federal databases are antiquated and still cannot communicate with each other in any meaningful way. While this is not a new problem for law enforcement, it does take on a higher priority in the aftermath of Sept. 11. This hodgepodge network of information creates an acute vulnerability that will be difficult to correct. Nor is the problem limited to computer systems; emergency radio communications in many areas are dire need of integration and improvements to their interoperability, as a number of post-9/11 studies concluded.

     That’s not to say that law enforcement isn’t better off now than it was 15 months ago. Agencies were able to put in improvements with whatever meager resources were available. Just as dangerous as a lack of resources, however, is a lack of will. An attitude that “it can’t happen in our town” may be a luxury in which civilians naively indulge, but one that the government and, by extension, the police cannot afford. A basic premise for the existence and legitimacy of government is its ability to protect its citizens. Has American law enforcement improved its level of prevention and preparedness? Yes. Is it enough to keep America safe? Not yet.