Defending the Homefront

American Outlook, Fall 2001

by Edmund McGarrell

ABSTRACT

One of the clearest signs that America was forever changed by the September 11 terrorist attacks was the creation of the Office of Homeland Security (OHS) by President Bush. The formal mission of the office, the president said, is “to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks. The office will coordinate the executive branch’s efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States.” Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, chosen by Bush to head OHS, will have the daunting task of coordinating more than forty federal agencies while building relationships with public and private institutions at the state and local levels. Along with the president, his cabinet, and members of the new Council on Homeland Security, Ridge will help shape the federal government’s unprecedented efforts to prevent acts of terrorism on U.S. soil.

There are a number of promising elements-and many questions-implicit in the president’s announcement. In considering these potential benefits and trade-offs, it makes sense to look at the president’s proposal in light of the lessons learned through the efforts of local law-enforcement agencies to reduce crime during the last decade.

Encouraging Signs

The first encouraging element in the creation of OHS is the choice of Ridge to head it. Ridge is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, whose years as chief executive of a large state have certainly prepared him for the challenges of changing bureaucratic organizations while operating in a highly political environment.

Also encouraging is the fact that the Office of Homeland Security has been given a broad mandate by President Bush to go on the offensive in a war against terrorism, rather than simply respond to terror attacks when they occur. The president has committed the nation to a determined, ongoing, and relentless campaign. Clearly, the hope for OHS is that it will become the driving force in that campaign, as the current military strike in Afghanistan and the memories of September 11 become further removed from our daily attention.

The executive order creating the Office of Homeland Security also includes indications that the proposal was not merely a hurried response to a crisis but rather a thoughtful and substantive answer to a critical need. For example, the order recognizes that OHS will not only need to coordinate a variety of federal agencies but will have to do so in cooperation with local and state authorities and private firms. This agenda will create a daunting set of challenges in terms of coordinating and increasing information flow between agencies in sectors often viewed as unrelated: public health, law enforcement, defense, energy, information, banking, and finance. Although the task is incredibly complex, any effective response to the terrorism threat must encompass all these areas. The executive order also recognizes that whereas the mission is to ensure homeland security, OHS must handle the collection of intelligence both within and outside the nation’s borders. Given the global reach of terrorist networks like al Qaeda, domestic security is crucially linked to international intelligence-gathering, detection of suspicious behavior, and responsive action.

Finally, a commitment to maintaining civil liberties has been expressed in virtually all the pronouncements by President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Governor Ridge. As the federal government’s strategies and policy proposals emerge in the coming months, numerous issues involving the balance between security and freedom will undoubtedly arise. It is gratifying to hear national leaders voice a determination not to allow terrorists to erode America’s basic freedoms.

Unanswered Questions

Despite the many promising signs, there are also a host of unanswered questions about this new federal office. First is whether the national commitment to homeland defense will fade, particularly if OHS is successful in preventing future attacks. One of the greatest challenges facing the office will be demonstrating success, meaning the prevention of future horrendous incidents such as those of September 11. Yet it is crises like the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that generate public demands for action. Thus, success could paradoxically erode the public’s commitment to OHS efforts

The second question facing OHS is whether Governor Ridge will have the power to make these agencies cooperate and share information, a concern raised by a number of commentators. OHS will rely on many agencies that conduct covert operations. The inadvertent release of information gathered by these agencies could destroy investigations, thwart missions, and put lives at risk. Hence, agencies built around secrecy are going to have a difficult time letting go of traditions that encourage them to resist the sharing of information with other agencies. Governor Ridge’s ability to create this type of cooperation, information sharing, and coordination will probably depend either on formal authority or on his influence on the president concerning the budgets of, and appointments to, the relevant agencies.

Third, it must be asked whether OHS will be able to ensure that American citizens’ basic freedoms are safeguarded. Although verbal commitments are reassuring, there will undoubtedly be enormous pressures to enhance security through measures that could also erode liberty. Debates over encryption codes, pretrial detention of immigrants, identification cards, wiretaps, and a variety of other issues, will take place constantly within OHS and among the press and public at large.

Lessons from Local Law Enforcement

In charting out the work of the Office of Homeland Security and in addressing the issues noted earlier, Governor Ridge may wish to consider lessons learned in a number of cities across the country in the fight against crime. The last decade brought dramatic declines in crime rates across the United States. Although the causes of the declines are a matter of heated debate, it seems clear that more effective policing and changes in criminal justice policy played a role. These lessons may be of great value in the fight against terrorism.

Crime rates across the United States began to rise in the 1960s, and although the increase was driven by a variety of causes, one clear ingredient was the simple effect of the post-World War II Baby Boom generation. By the 1960s, there were huge increases in the number of citizens in the relatively crime-prone ages of the mid-teens to mid-twenties. The counterintuitive response of law enforcement, the courts, and prisons was to decrease the number of convicted felons sent to prison. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the likelihood of a person who committed a crime going to prison and the average length of time served both decreased steadily. At the same time, crime, particularly violent offenses, escalated. The country responded with a prison expansion in the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in substantial increases in the prison population. Since the early 1990s, crime has decreased throughout the United States. Granted, prisons are crude instruments, and certainly there are some individuals in prison who probably pose little risk, if any, to the community; but on the other hand, much of America’s crime is committed by career offenders, many of whom have undoubtedly been taken off the streets by the expansion of the prison system.

Despite the apparent success of incarceration policy, however, it does have many critics. They urge examinations of the “root causes” of crime, much like critics of the war on terrorism attempt to explain the terrorists’ actions by identifying past U.S. foreign policy decisions, America’s support for Israel, and global poverty. When incarceration policies were proposed to reduce crime, many criminologists predicted that such policies would actually cause more crime-yet just the opposite occurred. Similarly, critics of the war on terror predict that action against the terrorists will only breed more violence, yet the experience of the last decade suggests that it is inaction which will produce that result. The simple lesson is that once the nation made a firm commitment to fight crime, despite the heavy costs of incarceration, the society made much progress against crime. Just as an imprisoned criminal cannot commit more crime, so too an imprisoned, disabled, or deceased terrorist cannot commit more acts of terror. Studying the arguments in the old debate over incarceration policy will thus be quite instructive today for Ridge and his colleagues as they seek the most effective policies for deterring terrorism.

Utilizing Intelligence

Another area where lessons can be learned from local law-enforcement strategies is in the collection of intelligence. Many students of the international intelligence community claim that America’s intelligence failure has not been in information-gathering through espionage, but has arisen from three other shortcomings: the intelligence community’s unwillingness to share information, a shortage of information analysis, and a failure to link analysis to action.

This is indeed very similar to the situation once faced by many police departments. For years, most departments had crime analysis units, and although they used them to solve individual crimes, rarely was the information used to formulate strategic responses to general patterns of crime. This changed most dramatically about seven years ago in the New York City Police Department (NYPD), under former commissioner William Bratton and his strategist, Jack Maple, when NYPD implemented a program known as COMPSTAT (Computerized Comparison of Crime Statistics). Commissioner Bratton chaired weekly meetings attended by all commanders, in which computerized presentations of crime patterns throughout the city were accompanied by questions from the commissioner and his staff, intended to ensure that area commanders had a detailed understanding of current crime patterns and had formulated strategies for addressing the problems. Over time, this approach fundamentally changed policing in NYPD. The department was transformed from a purely reactive organization that responded to individual crimes and then tried to arrest the perpetrators, to a proactive organization that studied problems, crafted interventions, and assessed their impact. The result has been a truly dramatic decline in crime in New York City since the early 1990s.

Among the key elements of the COMPSTAT approach are timely information-gathering, relentless tenacity, and accountability. The need for timely information will be crucial in the antiterrorism initiative as well. Although there is a role for analysis of past activities to better understand terrorists’ organization, motives, and tactics, the real payoff will be in obtaining timely information that allows investigators to focus their attention on immediate targets. Police departments that have successfully implemented the COMPSTAT model have committed themselves to collecting timely crime data; those that have used older crime data, on the other hand, have not found the approach nearly as beneficial.

Relentless tenacity and accountability are attained through a regular schedule of meetings. NYPD committed to twice-weekly meetings of all key personnel to address crime patterns and strategies. This sent the message that the chief executive and the command staff were thoroughly committed to crime reduction through the use of this model. Commanders that demonstrated ignorance of crime patterns within their command were unable to articulate a strategic plan, and eventually those whose precincts did not achieve crime reductions were demoted.

The COMPSTAT approach did for NYPD what one hopes the Office of Homeland Security will do with the huge amount of intelligence captured by a wide variety of federal agencies. Specifically, it must make timely intelligence the driving force of strategic action. As Senator Richard Shelby, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has stated, “We need an action-oriented approach where success is measured in the amount of terrorist cells destroyed or disabled, not on having new reports.”

Local police departments have developed sophisticated analytical tools that allow investigators to do just that, enabling early identification of crime patterns and criminal networks. For example, the COMPSTAT program and similar crime-analysis initiatives utilize geographic information systems (GIS) to display and analyze geographic patterns of crime. GIS technology can be used to identify “hot spots” of crime on area maps. This technique led to the crucial discovery that in most cities, a small number of addresses (for example, less than 10 percent) can generate well over half of a city’s calls to the police. The analysis of intelligence data will probably generate similar patterns, thereby identifying hot spots of terrorist activity. GIS mapping can also be enormously beneficial in plotting maps of assets-such as national landmarks, water treatment plants, airports, etc.-that may be potential targets of terrorist strikes. Maps displaying both hot spots and potential terrorist targets could be quite useful in allocating limited investigatory and prevention resources.

Mapping assets and hot spots of terrorist activities can be made even more successful by applying these techniques to a relatively simple criminological theory known as “routine activities.” This approach recognizes that almost all crime boils down to a small set of ingredients: a motivated offender, a suitable target or victim, and the absence of an effective guardian. Because in the area of terrorism there are a number of highly motivated offenders, tracking their activities and movements is essential. One can then relay this intelligence to potential targets, particularly those that may have ineffective guardians. A recent example of this approach comes from the increased security at infrastructure targets such as nuclear power plants and dams. Reports that al Qaeda operatives typically “case” their targets prior to an attack suggest that intelligence must routinely be coupled with asset mapping to ensure that adequate security is in place at potential targets.

An additional technique that has been used in the investigation of both domestic and international criminal enterprises is network analysis. This activity uses computer technology to search through massive intelligence databases to identify links between individuals, organizations, financial transactions, and other potential indicators of possible terrorist activity. Network analysis is frequently used by private security firms investigating fraud and other organized criminal activity. Bringing together computer specialists, terrorism investigators, and crime analysts to apply new computer techniques to vast collections of intelligence should yield new and innovative tools for investigating and penetrating terrorist networks. Preventing a terrorist attack in Phoenix, for example, may mean investigating e-mail communications between Iraq and Indonesia, financial transactions in Germany, and visa entries in Toronto. These analytic techniques could be powerful tools for understanding how global terrorist organizations operate.

Targeting the Evildoers

Another key element of the NYPD approach involves what has been termed quality-of-life enforcement. One element of this strategy in New York involved cracking down on graffiti, public intoxication, open drug use, and street-level prostitution in order to enhance the quality of neighborhood life. Policing these kinds of illicit activities also yielded enormous intelligence. By focusing attention on lower-level crimes that had previously been considered too trivial for an agency seeking to address serious crime, NYPD in fact solved many serious crimes. In the war on terrorism, there will naturally be a focus on individuals considered high-level threats in networks like al Qaeda. Such attention is obviously warranted. At the same time, however, investigators should pursue individuals in violation of less serious laws who may be sources of significant intelligence.

Focusing investigative efforts where they are most likely to yield results has proven critically important in local law enforcement. There are numerous examples of focused police interventions proving more effective than global dragnets that affect all citizens. In Indianapolis, for instance, a targeted vehicle stop aimed at individuals exhibiting suspicious behavior in high-crime locations proved much more effective at reducing firearms violence than did more general vehicle stops. Similarly, in Boston, careful analysis indicated that the city’s youth gun-violence problem was overwhelmingly a function of gang membership, and even among gang members, only a very small group was responsible for nearly all the shootings. Having identified this group, a targeted intervention that placed sanctions, and threatened further sanctions, on gang members illegally possessing and using firearms led to dramatic reductions in youth gun violence. This success stands in contrast to many less successful efforts that focus on all youth or all firearms despite the fact that most youth will never illegally carry or unlawfully use a firearm.

Targeted approaches are based on objective indicators of risk. Thus, for example, use of a potentially controversial technique such as facial imaging technology, whereby facial images can be compared to databases of individuals known to be associated with terrorist organizations, may be most effective and efficient if used only at a relatively small number of international airports where individuals routinely pass through customs.

One of the ironies of the current debate over whether racial profiling ought to be employed in the war on terrorism is that it comes at a time when most law enforcement officials have concluded that such profiling is not an effective crime-control tool. The much more effective approach is to use behavioral cues to trigger intervention. Thus, in Indianapolis, officers looked for signs such as a car with expired license tags continuing to circle around a block in a known drug-selling area as cues to make a vehicle stop, regardless of the race, sex, or ethnicity of the driver. Similarly, undue attention need not be directed at all young males of Middle Eastern descent, but scrutinizing such individuals who purchase one-way flight tickets with cash, who have moved frequently, or who are seeking work in a university laboratory that houses dangerous chemicals, would be a different matter.

In addition to behavioral cues, another objective indicator that should drive targeted law enforcement efforts is citizenship status. Although nearly all non-citizen visitors to the United States are law-abiding and peaceful, it is important to remember that they do not qualify for the panoply of civil rights inherent in American citizenship. Actions such as the non-custodial questioning of Middle Eastern and Arab foreign nationals, which the Attorney General has ordered, are of an entirely different character from the treatment that must be afforded U.S. citizens, who enjoy the presumption of loyalty to this country. Drawing a distinction between citizens and non-citizens is not only a rational policy intended to enhance security but also an important safeguard for the civil liberties of American citizens.

Using Carrots and Sticks

In both Boston and Indianapolis, interventions with gang members involved all relevant local, state, and federal law-enforcement officials holding meetings with high-risk gang members and delivering to them a twofold message. First, the criminal justice officials explained that firearms violence would not be tolerated, and they promised that when it did occur, every available sanction would be applied. Second, they explained that employment, drug treatment, and educational services would be made available to gang members who wished to pursue legitimate opportunities. This combination of carrots and sticks offered these troubled youths a position of legitimacy within the community and also enlisted neighborhood support for law enforcement efforts. As other communities have experimented with the Boston model, they have found that the key is to make the threats credible. An approach similar to this can be seen in the action in Afghanistan. President Bush has made it clear that terrorists and those who harbor them will receive the full brunt of U.S. military force. At the same time, humanitarian relief is being delivered to the citizens of the region.

Equally important in making threats credible is ensuring that the police are trusted and respected by those who abide by the law. Several high-profile incidents of alleged police brutality have led to significant criticism of NYPD for being overly aggressive. Such a charge is difficult to assess. On the one hand, incidents such as those involving Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo are clearly troubling. On the other hand, prior to these incidents, objective indicators such as police use of deadly force were actually on the decline in New York City. Research has found that in precincts where police managers have emphasized aggressive enforcement coupled with a demand that officers treat citizens with respect, increased enforcement of the law has been combined with positive relationships between the police and the community. The key to achieving this result appears to be in combining police consultation with community groups and effective management and supervision of officers. This can be as simple as requiring that officers explain to citizens why they are being stopped. It also requires close supervision of officers to identify those who receive frequent complaints, and the development of training programs to provide officers the interpersonal skills necessary for aggressive but respectful policing.

In the domestic fight against terrorism, law enforcement agents and private security officials will frequently be stopping and questioning law-abiding citizens. The evidence from local policing is that citizens will tolerate inconveniences if they are treated by the police in a respectful manner.

The Office of Homeland Security’s battle against terrorism is going to affect the life of every American. Fortunately, it can build on the long-term experience of agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and others by learning from local law enforcement in communities across the country. Specific management tools such as COMPSTAT and strategic problem-solving may prove helpful in coordinating the activities of the multiple public agencies falling under the umbrella of OHS. Analytic tools such as GIS mapping and network analysis can be used both to conduct investigations and to plan proactive strikes against terrorist networks. Finally, the office can use several guiding principles, learned through the past decade of crime-fighting successes, in shaping its response to terrorism: the use of behavioral cues as opposed to profiles, targeted interventions as opposed to limits on all citizens, and aggressive but respectful action on behalf of law enforcement and security officials. To the extent that the Office of Homeland Security borrows these tools and follows these principles, it should be able to ensure that America achieves the greatest possible degree of domestic security with the least cost to personal freedom.

About the Author

Edmund McGarrell is a professor at Michigan State University and director of its School of Criminal Justice. Prior to joining the MSU faculty, Ed was director of Hudson Institute’s Crime Control Policy Center. He has been a fellow at the National Center for Juvenile Justice and was formerly director of the Washington State Institute for Community Oriented Policing. In addition, he has taught at Indiana University and Washington State University.

Ed is co-author of Blueprint for a Drug-Free Future: Reducing Illegal Drug Use in the United States (with Jason D. Hutchens, Hudson, 2001), Returning Justice to the Community: The Indianapolis Juvenile Restorative Justice Experiment, and Targeting Firearms Violence Through Directed Police Patrol (Hudson, 1999-2000). He is co-editor of Indiana Juvenile Crime Forum Proceedings (Hudson, 1997); author of Juvenile Correctional Reform (SUNY Press, 1988); and co-editor of Community Corrections and Community Policing in a Rural Setting (Anderson Press, 1990 and 1997). Ed has also authored and published numerous articles in academic journals, newspapers and policy magazines, including American Outlook, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Sun-Times, Indianapolis Star, Newsday, and The Washington Times.

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