Rule #1 In Counter-Terrorism

Along conversation with a young friend revealed some points worth sharing in two areas, distinctly different but in a disturbing way, very closely related: counter-terrorism and that most basic of cop functions, see, stop, and ask. My friend recently completed a 3-year government assignment doing critical infrastructure threat assessments. Essentially, the job entailed eyeballs-on personal analysis of assets critical to the national defense and public well being, and analyzing their vulnerability to sabotage or other terrorist attack. Subject sites ranged from nuclear facilities to airports, oil pipelines, public stadiums, courthouses and municipal water systems.

His “targets” were in major cities, small towns, rural counties and remote areas. He usually worked alone, sometimes with a partner, always in street clothes, with no ID visible and his sidearm concealed. He grew up in a law enforcement family and trained at FLETC, but he looks like an ex-con who just spent 10 years in the joint pumping iron. He took hundreds of photos and reams of notes and sketches, all mostly in public view, almost always unannounced because one of the peripheral questions was, “Will you be challenged by security or law enforcement?” Let’s cut to the chase and get your attention now.

He said the only time he was ever challenged in a sizable city occurred one midday when he was snapping photos of exposed utility boxes and ducts on the side of a “sensitive” federal building. He got braced by a pair of retired Indianapolis street cops, who performed a “flank and block” on him, then, in friendly but firm tones asked, “Who are you and what are you doin’ here?” They were on vacation with their wives, who were doing a little tourist-trinket shopping. They had spotted him from across the boulevard, noted that he was hanging out on the blind side of a government building, what he was doing, and thought, maybe he’s clean and maybe not, but he needs to be checked out. Only a few minutes before, a 2-officer patrol unit had cruised by, glanced at our agent pal photographing gas and electric controls with his pocket camera … and kept driving.

Different Dynamics

Generally, he reported, private and corporate security personnel responsible for sensitive infrastructure were alert and aggressive. They responded quickly to his presence even in non-posted, unrestricted areas, and made good use of remote video and other electronic surveillance. They demanded ID and then checked it thoroughly. Officers who didn’t come on hostile at all stopped him many times in small towns and rural counties. They wanted to know who he was and what his business was there, especially when he was wandering around railroad sidings, pipeline junctions, unmanned electrical stations and such. They made it clear that terrorism as well as conventional crime was on their minds.

He attributed a lot of this attention to the lower-density population effect. They simply saw him as a stranger who, combined with an apparent lack of lawful business in a given place, merited attention, whereas strangers are the norm in big cities. But still, he said the overwhelming impression he received was that big-city, developed, populous-county officers were far less likely to confront someone or even to ask, “Who are you, what are you doing here? Can I help you?”

Discussing this with his peers doing similar work, he found broad agreement. No matter how potentially sensitive the site, unless you appeared to possibly be engaged in conventional crime, officers from larger agencies seemed reluctant to stop, get out of their vehicles, and approach you without some articulable cause. Considering the nature of the work — reconnoitering, photographing, and sketching sites and facilities, which cops should definitely see as possible terror targets and this was very disturbing. Agents figured the officers had to be curious. Sometimes their behaviors, like prolonged glances or slow drive-bys a few minutes later illustrated that, so why didn’t they stop and ask?

Viewing & Vetting

Appearances shouldn’t matter. The agent discussed his appearance with the pair of retired cops and other officers who challenged him. Were his looks, his clothing, and his ethnicity at all a factor, pro or con? Some admitted they almost passed him by because his look didn’t fit their subconscious profile of a bad guy. The old Indy cops and others laughed that off. “Appearances don’t mean jack, Jack,” one said. “Crooks and terrorists come in 31 flavors. It’s where you are and what you’re doing (or not doing) that counts.”

Get more than one ID and vet it! Many officers who stopped agents gave their IDs only cursory examinations, and few had even seen such IDs previously. When shown a state or federal agency ID, especially one you’re not familiar with, ask for another form of photo ID, and the name, title and phone number of your subject’s supervisor. For example, if your guy was photographing a line of chlorine-filled tanker cars from a railroad right-of-way, a legit CT agent won’t mind at all.

Know your sensitive sites. Does your regional hospital have a big nuclear medicine department? Is there a small, unremarkable light-industrial building in your area doing vital national defense work? Is a warehouse with hundreds of barrels of powdered aluminum and iron oxide important?

There’s much more to talk about on this subject, perhaps in a future issue. In the meantime, talk to your officers about see, stop and ASK!
By John Morrison

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American COP Feb 2013

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