9/11 led to new tools, strategies for police
An increase in information sharing and an emphasis on collecting intelligence data were two of the biggest changes
By Scott Cousins
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — Bethalto Police Chief Mike Dixon remembers watching the destruction of the World Trade Center at breakfast with his wife on September 11, 2001.
Then a member of the Madison County Sheriff's Department, Dixon was assigned to the Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southwestern Illinois.
"I remember waking up and seeing the very first plane," he recalled. "I looked at her and told her it was an attack.
"I just remember being numb," he said. "I was so sad for the people in our country at that moment."
"Numb" and "nauseous" were phrases used by several current and former police to describe their immediate reaction to 9/11.
"Back then it was unusual, to be actually watching the first one. And then that second plane hits the tower live was just a nauseous feeling," said Chief Deputy Maj. Jeff Connor of the Madison County Sheriff's Department.
Like many other aspects of society, 9/11 prompted major changes in law enforcement.
Two of the biggest long-term changes have been an increase in information sharing and an emphasis on collecting intelligence data, as well as new equipment acquired with either federal funding or direct donations to local departments.
While it has left law enforcement better prepared to respond to terrorist threats, it has also created concerns about infringement on civil liberties in the gathering of intelligence, and whether some of that equipment — and how it is used — is appropriate for civilian law enforcement.
Dixon said one of the immediate responses was the hardening or fortifying of buildings, such as police stations and federal buildings. Today that can be seen in a number of ways: limited access, closed-off areas and crash barriers in front of everything from courthouses to retail stores.
East Alton Mayor Darren Carlton, who was police chief before being elected to the post in November, said there were some immediate changes in his department.
"I was teaching DARE class at the time," he said of 9/11. "A bunch of the kids were worried about it."
One of the department's more immediate responses was to increase patrols around the schools.
"Not because we were worried," he said. "But to make the citizens feel safer," he said. "We were on guard, but we weren't hyped. We were a little bit more (security-) conscious when our guys made traffic stops or encountered people."
Riverbend industries such as Winchester also tightened security, and the East Alton Police Department took a firmer stance against trespassers at industrial properties.
Connor, who was with the Granite City Police Department in 2001, said there was not a lot of difference in how officers were patrolling immediately after the incident.
"We were still responding to whatever calls there may be," he said.
He agreed there were calls for increased security at some facilities.
"I do recall that for a long time the Corps (of Engineers) and Illinois American Water paid to have officers on site 24/7," he said. "For months after I remember those places were hiring our police to monitor them."
Lock and Dam 27 had long been feared to be a potential terrorism target because of its importance to commercial Mississippi River traffic. While the Corps never publicly confirmed those fears, tours of the facility were stopped and public access was greatly reduced.
At the state level the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System was developed in 2002 and a more coordinated emergency response was put in place. ILEAS includes regional tactical response teams and includes more than 900 local units of government statewide.
"We developed local responses," Dixon said, including field forces and command centers and tactical teams.
All three agree another post-9/11 response has been the sharing of information between local, state and federal agencies.
"The big change in law enforcement nationwide — due to a spin-off of 9/11 — was the intel, the intelligence information gathering that has taken place since then," Connor said.
Before 9/11 there had been a long-time impression that federal agencies did not like to share information with local law enforcement agencies. Instead, information would "make its way to whatever federal agency, and stay there."
Now, Connor said, there is a give-and-take on both sides.
The Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center (STIC), Illinois' designated "fusion center," or information clearinghouse, opened in 2003. It is part of the Illinois State Police's Intelligence Command which also includes the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Intelligence Support Unit and Digital Crimes Unit.
Tony Falconio, director of Madison County Emergency Management, said because of the county's proximity to St. Louis they also receive daily briefings from Missouri's fusion center.
"Since 9/11 there has been a push for better communication between federal, state and local," Connor said. "That has to go both ways; you have to send it up and send it back down.
"Prior to 9/11 you have someone who threatens to blow up a school, blow up a building, you would handle that locally," he said. "Now, you give the information to STIC and they are able to determine if that person or persons have been on the radar for other issues."
Dixon agreed that sharing information was a major change after 9/11. But he also is concerned that may be changing.
"I feel that is potentially going to go away again," he said. "It seems like it's becoming more of an 'us-versus-them'. That's always been an issue, big brother not talking to the guys below them."
Dixon said American society seems to have come "full circle" from the post-9/11 idea that the country and law enforcement need to rethink and prepare for terrorism.
"At the time we were attacked, we weren't all together," he said. "Everybody realized we need to prepare. Now everybody seems to want to take it away."
He said much of that comes from social unrest over the past few years.
The creation of the Department of Homeland Security also led to major changes in local policing, primarily through grants.
Connor said the grants have paid for everything from improved communications gear and ATVs to ballistic vests and weapons.
"It all boils down to more money is available to law enforcement to better equip themselves," Connor said.
Different departments had different needs, he said. "Some have a need for helicopters. We don't," he said.
They do have several drones, he said, which have proven to be useful in situations ranging from intelligence gathering prior to a raid to searching for missing persons.
The "militarization" of police has become a controversial aspect of terrorism-related grant programs. Some allege civilian law enforcement is adopting equipment and tactics better suited to combat instead of police work.
"War Comes Home: The excessive militarization of American policing, a 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, raised numerous concerns.
"The militarization of American policing has occurred as a direct result of federal programs that use equipment transfers and funding to encourage aggressive enforcement," it stated. Begun in during the 1990s "War on Drugs," it accelerated after 9/11 and the "War on Terror."
"Since the early 2000s, the infusion of DHS money and assistance to state and local law enforcement anti-terrorism work has led to even more police militarization and even greater military-law enforcement contact," the report states. "And DHS grants have allowed police departments to stockpile specialized equipment in the name of anti-terror readiness."
Dixon said militarization concerns, at least in the Metro East, are often exaggerated.
"This region got two armored vehicles ( Alton and Madison County) that are simply used to carry officers to risky situations," he said, adding the perception by some is that they now have tanks that can fire armor-piercing shells into buildings,.
Carlton said that, under a previous chief, his department got a Humvee.
"They painted that up and use it for PR," he said.
Prior to 9/11, most law enforcement agencies had begun rethinking how officers were armed. As a result of the War on Drugs, semi-automatic handguns had replaced revolvers. While shotguns remain in use, they have largely been replaced by semi-automatic rifles, the AR-15 platform being the most popular.
Dixon said the big shift toward arming officers with rifles came after the 1997 Bank of America robbery in North Hollywood, California. Two men wearing body armor used automatic weapons to shoot 19 people before being killed. Police only had 9mm handguns and shotguns.
"It showed that law enforcement they couldn't take two guys," Dixon said. "They had to go borrow guns from a pawn shop to take these guys down."
The 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado that left 13 dead also led to an almost immediate change in tactics for "active shooter" situations. Authorities now emphasize aggressively going after a shooter to limit casualties, rather than securing the perimeter to negotiate or bring in a tactical team.
Some also have been critical of using tactical teams to serve warrants.
"Any time there is going to be a search warrant, there is an evaluation of that incident," Connor said. "The experts can evaluate everything and make a determination of what level of response is necessary and would be the safest. All of that plays a part, and we let the experts who have been trained for that evaluation process to determine that."
Despite all the changes, the basics of the job — patrolling and responding to calls — remains the same, according to Connor.
"It is necessary for the officer to be out there driving around," he said. "They (people) feel safer when they see an officer, a squad car."
NEXT: Address the vulnerabilities in your backyard: Terrorism preparedness for rural agencies
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