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Why Education is Key in Law Enforcement’s Response to Terrorism

By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety

In the past, combating terrorism was not a primary concern for law enforcement. However, with recent attacks that have targeted locations as diverse as a nightclub in Orlando, a church in a small French town, and a Christmas market in Berlin, officers need to be prepared for the possibility that the worst could happen in their own communities.

To respond to the unpredictable and indiscriminate nature of terrorist attacks, officers should understand what they’re up against. To be prepared, officers must understand what terrorism involves and how they can integrate that awareness into everyday practice.

[Related: The Role of Local Police in the War Against Terrorism]

“It could happen to anybody at any time, whether it’s in Dallas or Des Moines,” said Jeremy Nikolow, an 11-year law enforcement veteran in central Florida. “Education is important because a terrorist act is not always going to come from where you think.”

Defining Terrorism for Law Enforcement

Last October, Nikolow, who has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from American Military University, was invited to present at the Florida Crime Prevention Association’s annual conference. His presentation focused on organizing a successful law enforcement response to terrorism. This first depends on understanding what an act of terrorism is, which Nikolow breaks into three main components:

  1. An unlawful act or threat of violence;
  2. with the purpose to intimidate;
  3. in order to achieve an ideological objective.

“When we think of terrorism we typically think of incidents like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing; things that have to do with Muslim extremism,” said Nikolow. “Though that’s definitely a credible threat, I caution officers to not put terrorism in one box.”

[Related: Understanding Homegrown Extremists]

The reality is terrorism can take many different forms and isn’t always based in religiosity. Political terrorism, eco-terrorism, and racial terrorism (e.g. Dylann Roof) are just a few examples. It’s also important to realize that religious terrorism is not limited to Islamic extremism. For example, the actions of the November 2015 Planned Parenthood shooter, Robert Dear, have been linked to his Christian beliefs.

[Related: Understanding the Mind of Mass Shooters: Psychological Autopsy]

It’s important to understand that terrorist attacks are varied so officers don’t limit their focus. However, Nikolow stresses that specific motivations shouldn’t be a concern when an attack has happened. “The result of an attack is that people are dying, so we need to concentrate on how we respond to that in the moment,” he said. “If you’re talking about trying to intervene or gathering intelligence beforehand, maybe the motivation would count, but for the most part there’s violence going on and we need to know how to approach it.”

[Related: Commander During Oslo Attacks Discusses Response, Lessons Learned]

Educating Law Enforcement

There are five main types of terrorist attacks that utilize different weapons: handheld weaponry, chemical agents, biological agents, radiological agents, and nuclear terrorism. Police officers deal primarily with handheld weaponry, such as knives and guns, which are easily acquired and concealed. This allows attackers to carry multiple weapons with the potential to carry out multiple attacks.

In addition to handheld weaponry, officers should also know about the other types of attacks. Although it is less likely that a patrol officer comes into contact with a biological or chemical bomb, they could identify some of the precursors. For example, an officer might be in someone’s house and see pool cleaning chemicals that could be used in bomb-making, but the individual in question doesn’t have a pool and isn’t involved in a pool cleaning business.

“Certain situations should raise some questions,” said Nikolow. “But this requires officers to have a basic knowledge of how different types of terrorism acts are carried out.”

[Related: Training Police in Counterintelligence to Combat Domestic Terrorism]

The Role of Law Enforcement

There’s been a shift since 9/11 from traditional warfare to asymmetric warfare, which is typically when a weaker group goes against a stronger group so they have to use unconventional methods of attack. From crashing planes into buildings to the attack in Nice, France where a cargo truck was used to run people over, an attack could come from the least expected place.

“We have to think of things being used as weapons that we never thought of before,” said Nikolow.

[Related: Lessons Learned from Isla Vista Mass Shooting]

With the threat of terrorism constantly evolving, law enforcement officers are on the front lines more than they used to be. There are three main roles officers play in the fight against terrorism. These are, but not limited to:

  1. They are the first line of defense in communities. Terrorists know this and in many cases if the goal is to hurt people, they have to get through law enforcement first. This means officers may also be the target themselves.
  2. They are the first responders. After an attack, officers will be the first ones to arrive and are responsible for carrying out all critical incident response tasks. This includes neutralizing any remaining threats and securing the area so medical personnel can come in.
  3. They act as “eyes and ears.” Traditionally, law enforcement has an “eyes and ears” program where members of the community, such as community watch leaders or citizen observer cars, are responsible for looking out for things out of the ordinary. In the same way, law enforcement can act as the eyes and ears for the federal government.

The key to any successful law enforcement response relies on communication with other agencies. There are several ways that this can be carried out. One is with an Information Liaison Officer (ILO) program. This is where an officer works for their local department but they’re also assigned to a task force or federal agency, such as the FBI, DEA or ATF.

[Related Article: Domestic Terrorism: Determining the Scope of Localized Threats]

Fusion centers are also vitally important. Several agencies send information into a fusion center, which then compiles it, separates it and redistributes it back out to everybody. This allows agencies to see what’s going on in their area and in surrounding jurisdictions. “Information could include crime trends, suspects we’re looking for, or information about somebody who’s suspected of having terrorist ties,” said Nikolow.

Fighting the Fear of Terrorism

In many cases, a terrorist act might hurt only a few people, but will threaten a much wider population. This makes the fight against terrorism particularly difficult for law enforcement. “As law enforcement, not only do you fight crime, you fight the fear of crime as well,” explained Nikolow. “It doesn’t matter how big or small the attack is. If it has that intended effect of taking away the public’s sense of safety and security, it’s a success for the terrorists.”

Fighting the fear of crime comes down to community policing and being present in neighborhoods, even those that might have strained relations with law enforcement. Most importantly, officers need to make sure they don’t marginalize any group of people. “If there’s an Islamic attack, you can’t isolate the mosques or the neighborhoods with a large Muslim population. You still need to go in there and show your presence,” said Nikolow. “Get out there, talk to people and show them you’re not just there to bring people to jail. You’re there to help out.”

Working directly with community members can often help to quell the public’s worries as well as aid police efforts. Many agencies, including Nikolow’s agency in central Florida, regularly include community members in their department crime meetings. This provides an opportunity for the community to hear about crime trends and what’s going on. Attending community members also have the opportunity to pitch in and discuss what they can do on their end.

“You’re working hand-in-hand and that’s community policing at its finest,” said Nikolow.

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