Battling Patrol Complacency in a Post-9/11 Era

What can police leaders do to combat this trend?

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I stood in an empty parking lot, surrounded by many other police officers, as we held an outdoor briefing about our patrol response to the terrorist attacks on the United States. Why we were outside? We were concerned that a commercial airliner might be intentionally flown into our 8-story civic center.

Over the course of the next days and weeks and months, like cops all over the United States, as we rushed to slap American flag stickers on our patrol cars and purchase hard-to-find American flag lapel pins, I handled an increasing number of “suspicious person” and “suspicious circumstances” calls from the public. I patrolled remote water reservoirs, on the lookout for “terrorists” intent on poisoning our water supply. Dispatch sent me to multiple “white powder” calls. Along with several other officers, I even conducted a felony stop on a taxiing Cessna because an air traffic controller thought that terrorists were aboard (they weren’t).

It was a whole new world indeed. All of our cop-instincts had shifted. For the first time, we paid intense attention to critical infrastructure targets in our jurisdiction. We handled every “suspicious package” call more seriously. We poured over terrorism bulletins provided by our federal partners. We were issued personal protective equipment and participated in drills that simulated chemical weapon attacks. We learned how to work with our Fire Department at a decontamination station.

But now, almost a decade and a half removed from the world-changing horrors of 9/11, I think law enforcement (and the public at large) has gotten complacent when it comes to homeland security.

Consider my own medium-sized police agency in the San Francisco Bay Area: about 65% of our current 92 sworn personnel were not yet cops on 9/11. Other than supervisors, not a single officer assigned to the patrol division right now was a cop on 9/11. Think about that. They come from a completely different set of backgrounds and perspectives, and they did not experience that colossal, career-altering paradigm shift that occurred in a span of minutes. Of course, that does not mean that they aren’t keeping homeland security on their mind when they patrol our town, or that they’re not dedicated outstanding officers, but it is still a remarkable statistic nonetheless.

When you factor in the resource-constrained environments in which most public safety agencies now must function, America’s police officers are increasingly having to do more with less. They’re responding to more calls and handling a greater diversity of call-types than ever before. And with no terrorist attack to the scale of 9/11 occurring on American soil in more than 14 years, is it any wonder that homeland security-focused patrol may have subconsciously and unintentionally moved to a back burner? As the cliché goes, if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.

As leaders in our organizations, what we can do to help our line personnel keep a homeland security focus as they go about their everyday patrol duties?

Sure, it would help to have supervisors and managers stress the importance of homeland security in briefings, remind officers of high-value targets in our cities, and send our personnel to appropriate in-service training (including, for example, the Terrorism Liaison Officer programs). That’s a great start, but it’s far more complex than that. We need to think more broadly, on a much larger scale, and on a long-term basis. Consider the following:

- Can we help support the development of technology that will help our officers and our communities focus on security threats?

- Can we leverage existing private technology in our cities and tie it in to public safety systems to create more complete security networks? Many jurisdictions are beginning to do this now with video surveillance registries, but what other existing technologies could we access?

- What about the creation of public safety apps that capitalize on game theory to build out an educational, game-like platform for patrol officers to better learn critical infrastructure in their cities?

No one has a crystal ball to look into the future, but we all know that it is likely to be a boots-on-the-ground, line-level officer who’s going to prevent or disrupt the next terrorist attack. It’s incumbent on all of us to do what we can to voluntarily return a vigilant, homeland security-based focus to our patrol operations. Heaven forbid it takes another large-scale terrorist attack to compel us to accomplish that goal.

Zach Perron is a lieutenant with the Palo Alto Police Department in California, where he manages public affairs and social media outreach. Zach is part of The White Hat Syndicate, a Medium account launched on October 26 that aims to publish thought-provoking articles about cutting-edge homeland security topics. The six authors come from a diverse array of professional and personal backgrounds: legal, fire, environmental health, federal transportation security, and law enforcement. You can follow Zach on Twitter at @zpPAPD.

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