How much has information sharing improved post 9/11?
The United States Department of Justice recommends transparency and information sharing with local law enforcement and the communities we all serve. Following 9/11, the government took several steps to improve information sharing among federal agencies and promoted transparency as well. Rightfully so. We now know an amazing amount of information was known about the terrorists who plotted and executed the September 11 attack. Some were even on watch lists, but that information was not shared. How much has information sharing improved among local law enforcement and the Feds? Who’s keeping an eye on this? Has anyone surveyed the American Police Chiefs on this? If not, why not?
At the lowest levels of government, first responders engaged in our nations unity of effort to prevent and respond to acts of violence and terror are still struggling to obtain more specific information from our federal counterparts.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) under former Commissioner Ray Kelly developed its own counter-terrorism unit unmatched by any other non-federal law enforcement agency in the United States. The existence of such a unit has caused friction between the NYPD and the FBI. According to a February 2003 article in New York Magazine, the NYPD hired “a lieutenant general from the Pentagon and a spymaster from the CIA” as part of Kelly’s vision to develop a counter-terrorism unit. Information after all is at the heart of most criminal justice and law enforcement activities.
Information is just as vital to maintaining governments and winning wars as it is to counterterrorism initiatives and local police departments. Of the 12, 000 police departments in the United States, about half (48%) of departments employed fewer than 10 officers. How are police departments as trusted partners in the Homeland Security enterprise with far less resources than the NYPD expected to prevent future acts of terror if information is only provided on a need to know basis?
Post 9/11, the Attorney General issued a directive to establish secure means of working with state and local officials to improve their information sharing and collaboration efforts. And, the USA Patriot Act (Pub. L. 107–56) has greatly improved the FBI’s ability to exchange data with the intelligence community and across law enforcement. Now, the FBI has a long tradition of exchanging unclassified information with Federal, State and local law enforcement agencies on wants and warrants, fingerprint identification, forensic information and watch lists. Increases in the exchange of specific case-related information due has gotten better, in large part, to the increase of task forces but how much information is shared outside of the Task Forces? Must police departments pay to play?
Polarizing police related shootings in New York, Cleveland, and Fergusson quickly gained the attention of communities and the media. High profile unfathomable crimes at a local elementary school like Sandy Hook in 2012, and on college campuses like Virginia Tech in 2007 gained the attention of our nation and resulted in tougher gun laws, promoted information sharing on varying levels within law enforcement and higher education. For example, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), enacted by Congress in 1996, has exemptions for health and safety enabling professionals to share information with police of a potential threat. HIPPA whom many well intended professionals thought prevented the sharing of medical information about students had exceptions but this wasn’t clear in 2007 prior to Virginia Tech.
The “Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy” called on the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to issue guidelines clarifying how colleges, police departments, and social-service agencies can share information legally under current federal laws governing student records. This also gave rise to campus threat assessment teams, a program is noteworthy for how information is shared lawfully among agencies, for making assessments that are fact-based rather than based on stereotypes or profiling.
Our position does not imply that a gunman shooting innocent people (non-combatants) in a school or a workplace can be categorized as a terrorist. However, whether a school shooting or an act of terrorism directed at American interests at home or abroad, the questions that will and should be asked of law enforcement following the attack are: what did we know, when did we know it, and what did we do about it. Overcoming traditional organizationally imposed limitations on information sharing requires the Feds to assess themselves and their organizations. The Feds must ask themselves if they are contributing as best they can to the scaffolding which supports the information sharing needed to defend America.
Law enforcement expects community members to provide information about impending danger or information that will help lead to a suspect or help solve a crime. Our communities expect law enforcement agencies are doing the same. Preventing violence and promoting effective information keeps America safe.
So, are the Feds really doing all they can to improve information sharing post since 9/11?