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Policing Terrorism

issue brief

Policing Terrorism

September 1, 2006
Legal ReformOther
Urban PolicyCrimeOther

On July 5, 2005, two undercover police officers in Torrance, California, noticed a car nosing slowly past a Chevron station. Two men wearing ski masks jumped from the car, one randished a shotgun, and they stole $252 from the night clerk. Police arrested the two men without incident, but a search of their shared apartment yielded jihadist literature and plans to bomb synagogues in Los Angeles. 

The Torrance case is only one among dozens of planned terrorist attacks that have been thwarted by local police. But because the homeland- security debate has, so far, focused on federal capacities, our national counterterrorist strategy has failed to incorporate hundreds of thousands of capable cops. Local law enforcement officers are primarily viewed as "first responders" to incidents rather than as potential "first preventers" of terrorism. As a result, the United States remains far more vulnerable than it should be.

In fact, the same tactics that have improved criminal policing over the last two decades counterterrorist operations. Those tactics, first proposed by one of the authors of this paper (Kelling) in The Atlantic Monthly in March 1982, were put into practice by the other (Bratton) in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. Our shared knowledge of both the theory and practice of policing has convinced us that local law  enforcement is a vital yet underutilized resource in the war on terror. Local police can be leveraged in this war in three key ways. First, we can train police in the problemsolving techniques that will make them effective first preventers of terrorism. Second, we can use computer statistics (Compstat) and technology to enhance data sharing and to catalyze intelligenceled counterterrorist policing. Finally, and most vitally, the theory of order maintenance commonly called "broken windows," which police in New York City have used so successfully in the war on crime, can be adapted for the war on terror. Doing so will dramatically bolster our ability to disrupt terrorists before they strike.

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