Law Enforcement News

Vol. XXVII, No. 567, 568 A publication of John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY December 15/31, 2001

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In this issue:

Frozen moments: Images from 2001.
DARE officials yield on the issue of curriculum overhaul.
Reduced funding for policing’s “secret weapon.
Terror attacks prove little deterrent for drug traffic.
USA’s porous borders get a second look.
A regular riot: Troubles aplenty in Cincinnati and elsewhere.
A change in fortunes for a troubled FBI.
800 megahertz seems like an unlucky number.
Facing up to some harsh new surveillance realities.
Racial profiling is more than just a black and white issue.
Policing goes back and forth on college requirements.
Can the thin blue line get much thinner?
How terror attacks added to a shifting gun-control landscape.
The tug of war between police and the media over privacy issues.
Legislating against terror with the 2001 Patriot Act.
People & Places: Some of the personalities who made their mark on 2001.
DNA concerns widen and deepen the gene pool.
Judges and legislatures still wrestle with nuances of the sex-offender issue.
Militias have dwindled, but there’s still plenty of hate out there.
Who’s looking over policing’s shoulders? It seems like just about everybody.
Columbine is history, but school violence persists.
Order in the court: The Justices have their say.
Giant technological leaps sometimes come in small packages.
Justice by the Numbers: A statistical profile of criminal justice in the post-Sept. 11 era.

2001 — the year in review:
Terror attacks add to shifting gun-control landscape

      If it seemed that the gun-control lobby was losing ground early last year in the face of a staunchly pro-gun White House and Justice Department, the landscape shifted even further in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as a shaken nation sharply increased its purchases of firearms.

      According to FBI statistics, the number of background checks for gun sales and other transactions rose to 864,038 in September of 2001 - 10.5 percent higher than the same month in 2000. In October, when they peaked, that figure rose to 1,029,691 from 845,886 the same month one year earlier — a jump of nearly 22 percent. In December, the bureau reported, the figures appeared to be slightly lower, although the holiday gift-buying season had not yet ended.

      In a survey conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation shortly after Sept. 11, about 15 percent of gun retailers reported sales increases of more than 25 percent. The majority of those were in New York, Washington and Florida. Sales of ammunition rose by more than 30 percent.

      The continued proliferation of firearms has given pause to many in policing. Said North Miami Beach, Fla., Police Chief William B. Berger, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police: “We are always concerned with the overall number of guns that are available and out on the street making things unmanageable for law enforcement.”

      In December, many lawmakers, law enforcement officials and others had their earlier fears about a pro-gun White House and Justice Department reinforced when Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to let the FBI use its instant background check system to determine whether any of the 1,200 people detained after Sept. 11 had purchased a gun. The move by Ashcroft, some said, was unusually solicitous of foreigners’ gun rights, and was evidence that he was letting his pro-gun views override the needs of a federal terrorism investigation.

      The decision was “absurd and unconscionable,” said Los Gatos, Calif., Police Chief Larry Todd, a member of the IACP’s firearms committee. “It sounds to me like it was made for narrow political reasons based on a right-to-bear arms mentality,” he said. “If someone is under investigation for a terrorist act, all the records we have in this country should be checked, including whether they bought firearms.”

      A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Mindy Tucker, said the department made its decision in October after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms asked the FBI to check the names of 186 detainees against those in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) the previous month.

      FBI officials said they got a hit on two of the names. By the next day, however, the FBI unit that maintains the records was advised that they could not be reviewed for purposes of the terrorism probe. “We intend to use every legal tool available to protect American lives,” said John Collingwood, an assistant director of the FBI, but “applicable law does not permit” the NICS to be used to investigate individuals.

      Throughout the year, pro-gun control advocates had seen earlier gains reversed:

      Confident that the Bush administration would not support a program favoring a code of conduct on gun manufacturers, the gun industry dropped its suit against the Department of Housing and Urban Development in January. “It is clear that the election of George W. Bush changes the dynamic regarding this pattern of government abuse coached by President Clinton and quarterbacked by” HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo, said Robert Delfay, president and chief executive of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

A shooter takes aim at a target bearing a picture of Osama bin Laden during practice at a Dallas shooting range. Sales of firearms were reportedly up sharply in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

      HUD informed public housing authorities in July that a federal gun-buyback program would be eliminated. The $15-million initiative launched in 1999 was slashed, officials said, because its effectiveness in removing guns from the streets could not be proven.

      Attorney General John Ashcroft announces that the Justice Department is preparing a legal opinion which would argue that individuals, not just groups, are entitled to own firearms.

      The undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, John R. Bolton, tells participants at a United Nations conference in July that the U.S. would oppose negotiations leading to a binding legal agreement to curb illegal small arms trafficking.

      A ban on sales of small handguns known as “pocket rockets” was proposed by Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer in March. While the initiative was resisted by gun owners, it won the support of the city’s law enforcement officials.

      A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, released in July, found that more than 2 percent of some 30 million applications for handgun ownership have been rejected since the Brady Act was enacted in 1994. In 2000, the study said, the number of handgun permits dropped nationally by 11 percent compared to the previous year, and by approximately 25 percent in California and Indiana.

      Police officers may publicly preach gun safety, but they rarely practice it in their own homes, according to a study from the University of North Carolina. Of 207 members of an unidentified Southern law enforcement agency, 44 percent said they kept a loaded, unlocked gun in their home. Of the 55 percent who had children, 65 percent reported keeping firearms unloaded, and 69 percent said they kept their weapons locked up.

      A report by the General Accounting Office in March said that loopholes in the Brady Act allowed undercover federal agents to purchase a variety of weapons using counterfeit identification created with off-the-shelf software. Transactions in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Virginia and West Virginia yielded seven firearms, including a 7.62mm Russian semiautomatic rifle and a .22 semiautomatic rifle, and a 30-round banana clip.

Legislating vs. terror

      Within hours of being signed by President Bush on Oct. 26, the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 were implemented throughout the nation’s FBI field offices and U.S. attorneys. The sweeping anti-terrorist bill greatly expands the powers of the government over alien residents. Among the authority it gives to federal law enforcement:


  • It allows the Justice Department and its branches to conduct expanded electronic surveillance, detain immigrants and penetrate banks suspected of laundering money for terrorist organizations.


  • It gives law enforcement the ability to place a roving wiretap approved by a special intelligence court on someone suspected of terrorist activities.


  • It imposes increased sentences on those convicted of terrorist acts, harboring terrorists or financing their organizations. Committing such an act against mass transit would be considered a federal offense under the law, as would possession of a substance that could be used for bioterrorism for other than peaceful purposes.


  • It permits special intelligence courts to give national security investigators the authority to eavesdrop on suspects in terrorism cases if the investigators assert that foreign intelligence operations are a significant purpose of the probe.


  • The law allows the attorney general or his deputy to detain indefinitely any non-citizens certified as endangering national security. Foreigners may be held for additional periods of up to six months, although the law requires that either deportation proceedings or prosecution be commenced within seven days. Certification will be reviewed by the attorney general every six months.


  • The Treasury Department may sanction those nations that refuse to provide information on bank depositors. U.S. banks are barred under the law from doing business with offshore “shell” banks, and transactions with hawalas, the paperless banks of the Middle East, will be monitored.

  • The police privacy tug of war

          The tug-of-war between police and the media continued last year as law enforcement officers around the country struggled to protect their privacy and newspapers went to court in an effort to gain access to what they claim are public records.

          Police lost a round in September when a federal judge in Ohio ruled that officers would have to show that granting members of the press access to records containing their home addresses, disciplinary reports and the identities of family members posed an actual threat. The decision by U.S. District Judge George C. Smith stemmed from a case involving three undercover narcotics officers in Columbus who sought a court order blocking the release of personal information. Smith’s decision pertains only to media access; state law still protects such records from public access. The case will be appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

          In March, a Missouri appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners had violated the state’s open meetings law, and barred it from holding closed sessions at which police lists of employees, adoption of rules, staffing levels and the police budget were discussed.

          The Harris County, Texas, Sheriff’s Department was ordered in February to release documents that detail deputies’ use of force against inmates. The agency said it would appeal.

          Durham, N.C., Police Chief Theresa Chambers said in September that she would no longer vote if it meant that her home address would be made available through the county’s voter-registration list. The county intends to place voter information, including names, political affiliations and addresses, on the Internet. Earlier in the year, there was friction between the Durham Police Department and local news media when Chambers implemented a weekday-only policy for releasing crime records, saying there was not enough staff to keep the records unit open at night and on the weekends.

           In Arizona, the press complained in February that the affidavits written by detectives or police legal advisers are being sealed with more frequency than they had been in the past. The assertion was denied by authorities in Tempe and Maricopa County. Paul FitzGerald, a spokesman for the county attorney’s office, said the only time the media was not given access was when a case was still under investigation, or when it involved the abuse of a child recorded on videotape.

          Authorities in Gallup, N.M., said in July that they would not release a report to the media on the fatal shooting on May 30 of police Cpl. Larry Brian Mitchell. City Manager David Ruiz said he withheld the report from The Gallup Independent after consulting attorneys for the state police and the McKinley County district attorney’s office, who said they did not believe the incident report is a public record.

          Kirkland, Wash., authorities said in April they would sue to keep a Mill Creek man from posting the legally obtained phone numbers, home addresses and Social Security numbers of police officers on his Web site.