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What a former DHS secretary thinks of current terrorist threats, how cops can combat them

Former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge made some time to visit with Police1 during IACP 2016


Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (left) takes time to visit with PoliceOne Editor-at-Large Doug Wyllie.

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Tom Ridge knows a thing or two about the topics of terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement. Today, Ridge is CEO of Ridge Global, an LLC focused on helping organizations decrease security risks. But Ridge is probably most well known for being the first ever United States Secretary of Homeland Security. Prior to being appointed to that historic post, Ridge had been an advisor to President George W. Bush, Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and a representative in the United States Congress.

In his early life, Ridge had been an infantry staff sergeant in Vietnam, earning the Bronze Star for Valor, the Combat Infantry Badge, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He had been a successful district attorney, working closely with law enforcement to put bad guys behind bars. Somewhat surprisingly, Ridge had even briefly been a defense attorney (we won’t hold this resume item against him).

Following an IACP 2016 evening event during which he gave the keynote address for a company called Patriot One — a new company that will provide breakthrough weapons detection technology by leveraging high-frequency radio waves called Cognitive Microwave Radar — Ridge graciously made time to visit with Police1. The following is a precis of that conversation.

Lone actors and HVEs
Back when Ridge was an advisor to the president immediately following the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001, the predominant terrorist threat was al Qaeda. That organization favored large-scale, coordinated attacks that required years of meticulous planning and preparation. Those plots involved dozens of individuals and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

Such complex undertakings would be immensely difficult to pull off in the post-9/11 era of counterterrorism. Instead, Ridge said, the threat comes from lone actors and homegrown violent extremists (HVEs).

“I see three strands — three kinds — of terrorist. One we can track and see in Syria and Iraq — we’ve got our eyes on them. We’ve got our eyes on those who engage in chat rooms — we can identify them when they leave their electronic DNA all over the place. But it’s that individual actor who may use the jihadist ideology to justify his or her action. That’s the most difficult thing for Homeland Security and law enforcement to deal with because there’s no precursor. There’s no advanced information,” Ridge said.

“I think you have to rely on the people in the community — the expression ‘See something, say something’ — and I think over time we’ll see technology such as we’ve seen with this Patriot One be of some support to the community at large and to law enforcement as well.”

Ridge recognized that the online presence of al Qaeda and ISIS — Inspire magazine and Dabiq magazine, respectively — prey on individuals who may have mental or psychological weakness. These online predators intentionally seek out individuals who feel disenfranchised or who begrudge Americans not necessarily on religious grounds, but on some other perception that they’ve been slighted. Ridge also understands that there is very little that can be done to combat that fact.

“It’s so difficult. It would require a much deeper understanding of the individual’s mental health circumstances. Not only is that difficult to do, but constitutionally you can’t do it. But there is an element to consider. I go back to the father who turned to the security people. He called them and said, ‘I think my son is a terrorist.’ That’s why I think the relationship between the police and the community — I don’t care whether it’s the minority community or the Muslim community — it’s in their collective best interests to share information about potential actors, whether they’re criminals and drug dealers to they’re potential terrorists.”

Indeed, time and again we have seen that one of the most effective ways to create a safer community is to have closer collaboration between law enforcement and the community. A difficult — but not impossible — hurdle to overcome is the notion that people resist making a call to police because they fear they will be accused of racial profiling or Islamophobia.

Recall that a neighbor in San Bernardino saw what they believed to be suspicious activity and yet decided not to phone it in to police. In this area, the police need to enable concerned citizens to feel okay about making that leap of faith that their concerns will be handled with due care and consideration. Otherwise, we will have witnesses who never come forward.

“We’re not talking about spying on your neighbor,” Ridge said. “But there have been a couple of instances where had somebody spoken up about unusual conduct at certain times of the day, it might have helped the police.”

Greater information sharing
On the topic of ensuring that time-sensitive information related to potential terrorist threats is shared, Ridge had some thoughts on how the alphabet agencies at the federal level can do a better job of getting intelligence into the hands of state and local law enforcement officials.

“I’ve talked to a lot of JTTFs and the relationship between them and the state and local law enforcement has gone in a better, more positive direction. Anecdotally, I don’t think — number one — that it’s universal — and number two — I think it could be more forthcoming. I just wonder how many big city police chiefs know the number and the nature and the extent of the investigations going on in their town. Not the FBI’s town — in their town, in their community,” Ridge said.

“I’ve often wondered, how often does that federal agency contact the chief and say, ‘You know, we could use a couple of your really good people. You’re a force multiplier for us. Let’s work in conjunction.’ I think they sometimes underestimate the value of collaboration with the locals,” Ridge said.

Ridge feels that at the local level, police agencies need to institutionalize their work with the JTTFs, not rely on the relationships built up by those individuals on the department who are go-getters and who are actively engaged in dialog with their federal partners.

The line-level officer
“I’ve had many experiences with front-line officers, both when I was a DA and as a defense attorney years and years ago,” Ridge said. “They walk the streets and they walk the neighborhoods and they are the front line. They are the front line in combatting crime. They are the front line in combatting terrorism. And in most circumstances they are a more effective front line if they are armed with the right technology and information.”

Finally, just as he had done at the outset of his remarks during the Patriot One keynote address, Ridge deliberately took time to tip his cap to the men and women of law enforcement.

“Very few people have any idea about the perils of a vehicle stop, a domestic abuse call, or an armed robbery or all the other things they do day-to-day. People have no idea how perilous those situations are because they’re not reported. I do. I’m grateful for their public service. People for years have thanked me for my public service, and we thank our veterans. I like the community member who will walk up to the patrol car or the cop walking the beat and say, ‘Officer, I appreciate your public service.’”

Well said, Mr. Secretary.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.