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LEOs respond: 20 years later, what are the lasting impacts of the September 11 attacks?

Readers and columnists share their thoughts as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our nation


Police officers help rinse a man’s eyes after the fall of the twin towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.

AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin

By Police1 Staff

Each anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks elicits powerful emotions, particularly for those who work in public safety. So, when we asked our readers and columnists to share their thoughts as we prepared to commemorate the twentieth, we knew to expect some moving responses.

But this year’s answers feel different, undoubtedly because of where we find ourselves in the present moment. It’s been over a year since national calls for police reform started to change the way large swaths of our communities see law enforcement, and it’s been even longer since the pandemic started stretching these officers to their limits.

And Afghanistan just fell back into the hands of the Taliban.

But the thing that stands out to us most in these responses isn’t a sense of defeatism; rather, it’s the resilience of these officers’ commitments to protecting our nation despite the obstacles and their dedication to making sure that no one – not even those within their own ranks who were too young to remember firsthand – ever forgets.

Here’s what they had to say.

LEOs remember where they were on September 11, 2001

Fidel B., via LinkedIn: I was a detective with 16 years on the job and assigned to the Long Island District Office, DEA Drug Task Force. On 9/11, I was supposed to be in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan (SDNY) at 9:00 am to review an ongoing investigation. I was running late that morning (as usual), and by the time I hit the road, the NYS Police had shut down the parkways so that no one got in or out of NYC. I turned around and headed eastbound to our DEA District Office in Melville, N.Y., where my fellow agents and task force officers had cleared the building that occupied our offices by repositioning our vehicles in a circle around the building.

I recall many of us being angry with the SAC in Manhattan because he ordered us to stay away from the WTC site. Looking back, our SAC probably saved many of us from getting sick from the toxic air that so many of our brothers and sisters inhaled that day. I lost seven personal friends from the FDNY and NYPD on that awful day and just like our military, all died heroes. Their deaths were not in vain!

Jill Painter, via Facebook: I live in the U.K., and at the time of the attacks I was on patrol around London City Airport. As I watched the events unfold on a tiny portable TV, to say I was stunned would be an understatement. I also had a relative working in the Lehman Bros. building next to the towers, so I was incredibly worried for her.

The bravery of the firefighters, police and civilians was humbling to watch, and when the towers collapsed it brought home just how fragile life is. The fact it was a terrorist attack on a scale never seen before was horrifying. It was 18 hours before my relative contacted us to say that she was safe; she ignored advice to stay put and ran until she was pulled into a shop to avoid the dust cloud as the tower collapsed. She was traumatized for months – bodies falling past her office window, the carnage on the ground. It was a day she and I will never forget. I have the utmost respect for those who gave everything on that day, including their lives.

Jim Dudley, P1 columnist: On the morning of 9/11, I was home in San Francisco when I received a call from an officer from my district police station where I was the captain. He said, “Turn on your TV, Cap.” I asked, “What station?” He said, “Any station.” Moments after I saw the first plane crash into one of New York’s twin towers, another plane hit. From 3,000 miles away, I felt the impact. I took care of my sons and scrambled to work. I notified every officer under my command to check in on their families and to make sure they were safe and had a plan.

Steve Hunt, via LinkedIn: I was blessed with the opportunity of going to Ground Zero to help in the rescue. It was the most powerful experience of my lifetime. After the trauma of the experience, I totally appreciated how the country pulled together as one! It was amazing! How the hell did we get to where we are so divided as a nation?

LEOs on how the tragedy inspired their future career paths

Vincent Garetto, via LinkedIn: I was in high school in JROTC. I saw a retired lieutenant colonel in tears. I remember being only 15 and wanting to go overseas the next day. Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with diabetes and could not join the U.S. Army. I did the next best thing and became a cop. I will always remember that day as changing me into a person who wanted to be in civil service to work for my community.

Wayne Klobe, via LinkedIn: I was a veteran detective working for the St. Louis Metropolitan P.D. As soon as the attacks took place, I knew life would never be the same, not just for law enforcement, but for everyone in this country. When President Bush announced the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, I wanted to be a part of this new agency to help establish and grow it into a major component of our country’s defense, so I retired from the police department and went to work for the Transportation Security Administration, one of the divisions of DHS. I spent the next 10 years managing TSA screeners at Lambert St. Louis International Airport. We will always have our fair share of detractors and complainers, but for the most part, I saw a renewed sense of patriotism and support for the first responders and security personnel working to protect our citizens.

LEOs on how the public’s perception of police officers changed

James Greer, via LinkedIn: I was on bike patrol through residential areas in the days after 9/11. People would come out of their houses to wave and say thank you. None of us in law enforcement had the slightest idea what was to come, but we became the face of “we’re going to stand between the bad guys and our community.”

Dan Marcou, P1 columnist: There was a surge of appreciation for law enforcement and for the first time in my career people came up to me and others over and over to say, “Thank you for your service.”

Like a tidal wave, it hardly needs stating, that feeling of general goodwill toward police officers has since receded. However, even during these times, which have been difficult for law enforcement, there are still many who experience citizens coming forward to thank them for their service.

LEOs on how our approach to protecting the public has changed

Michael Redman, via LinkedIn: We have not forgotten the sacrifices made that day. 9/11 was such a colossal failure of human intelligence. At the time the thought was monster computer systems would monitor threats and dictate intelligence. Large agencies and border agencies were plugged into the feds, but it took the preventable events of 9/11 to get every local agency plugged in as well as plugged into their own communities. Those local agencies working with their own diverse communities then keying in the feds have identified many pre-incident indicators since. Ironically, or tragically, we see ourselves going down the same path: Defund pressures and increase in technology focus over boots on the ground have reduced important relationships that inform intelligence. Similarly, many mass shootings also can be prevented often through relationship building, early identification of pre-incident indicators and intervention actions. Other items learned through 9/11 were many ICS, interagency cooperation and interoperability needs throughout the nation.

Jim Dudley, P1 columnist: I realized that day that we had no idea how to anticipate what was about to happen next. There was no situational awareness and there was no playbook to fall back on. The attack on American soil was incomprehensible.

I learned then and believe now that when a tragedy of that magnitude strikes, we are responsible for ourselves. Although we have so many sources of intelligence, both secure and open source, it depends on what happens to the intelligence, how it is synthesized and how it is acted upon toward preparedness.

Like any law enforcement officer (retired or active), who still sits with his back to the wall in restaurants, scans for threats in public places, thinks about exit strategies, and maintains physical fitness and abilities, I know the response begins with me. We cannot afford to wait for instructions.

LEOs on what they would tell our fallen heroes

Jim Dudley, P1 columnist: Thank you. You acted on behalf of others. Your efforts are still remembered – running into danger, acting selflessly to rescue others. Your acts of courage galvanize our calling for those who came after you. You are forever in our thoughts.

Dan Marcou, P1 columnist: If they have been able to watch the way the gains made in the war on terror have been so quickly squandered, I would tell them to not be disheartened. Their devotion to duty and their sacrifice bought us safety on the home front for 20 years.

W. Thomas Smith Jr, P1 columnist: First, I would tell our fallen heroes that their sacrifices were not in vain. Their sacrifices and the difficult work leading to those sacrifices quite literally saved lives, and those same sacrifices have, in many ways, kept the proverbial wolf away from the door for the past 20 years. I would also tell our fallen heroes that their sacrifices also set the bar for what it means to be a servant leader in a world fraught with extreme risk. And at the end of the day, isn’t “servant leader” what all first responders – to include law enforcement, firefighters and EMS personnel – as well as military combatants, are? And aren’t servant leaders what all are supposed to be?

LEOs give advice to the next generation of officers facing terrorism threats at home

Wayne Klobe, via LinkedIn: As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, many of the young men and women early in their careers in law enforcement were barely alive when that horrible day took place. They are faced with many new challenges, but for the sake of the more than 3,000 people that died that day, they must never waver in their duty and promises they made to defend this nation.

Dan Marcou, P1 columnist: The future response to a terror attack on the homeland depends on the current officers who stand ready in the face of the inevitability of another attack. One can only hope these officers, even though they have been deliberately diminished in numbers, have not been diminished in spirit.

There is also the most highly trained generation of retired officers, who still train and stand ready to assist any officer in need or step in to intercede as a last line of defense in a dire circumstance (such as an active shooter or terrorist attack) on the home front.

Jim Dudley, P1 columnist: To the current ranks of first responders in law enforcement, emergency medical services and fire, take heart. Heroes will always act. We have seen acts of heroism across America over the years – at critical incidents, at mass shootings, at natural and man-made disasters.

Today, we are at a different place in America. Some have attempted to erode our ability to plan, respond, mitigate and recover from attacks and disasters. Every member of every agency should be mindful of global events, national trends and local capabilities, and understand the possibilities of how it may affect their region. They may be separated from communications and family when the next disaster strikes. Continue to maintain your response capabilities. Prepare and plan for your own family first so you have a clear mind to protect and respond for others.

W. Thomas Smith Jr, P1 columnist: The future of “terrorism response” will always be, first and foremost, the rapid collection of substantive information, the rapid and thorough production of that information into finished actionable intelligence, and the rapid dissemination and sharing of that intelligence with the agencies needing it. And much of that initial information collection will be enhanced by greater public awareness of what to look for and what and when to report. We must always stay far out in front of the enemy in this regard, and we must maintain our training and technological supremacy in terms of both our law enforcement special response teams and patrol officers, as well as military special operators.

For law enforcement, that means maintaining our existing edge in communications, increased coordination of effort with other agencies, increased community and public relations efforts, always striving for better response-to-incident times, more tactical flexibility and enhanced situational awareness at the individual level. For the military, this means all of the above, but it also means taking the fight away from our shores, which is what we have successfully been able to do for the past 20 years. For both law enforcement and the military, this means training, training and more training for every imaginable scenario. Never forget, we have to get it right every time. The terrorist enemy only has to get it right once.

NEXT: Address the vulnerabilities in your backyard: Terrorism preparedness for rural agencies

Share your perspectives on how the 9/11 attacks changed public safety and the way you do your job, what you would tell our fallen heroes and your thoughts on the future of terrorism response. Email