In the wake of terrorist attacks both at home and abroad, many Americans have begun to take a heightened interest in their security. Similarly, officials in local law enforcement at every level of government are aware of these growing concerns, but the very nature of how terrorist threats are monitored makes it difficult to offer much peace of mind to the public without revealing sensitive information.
This past week Lagniappe reached out to the Terrorist Screening Center, which is part of FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., but received almost no information about any potential threats or monitored individuals in the area.
“The TSC does not publicly confirm nor deny whether any individual may be included in the U.S. Government’s Terrorist Screening Database or any subset list,” Dave S. Joly, a TSC spokesperson, said.
Local law enforcement was a little more forthcoming on the process but was still limited by what information could be disclosed. Doug Astralaga, a supervisory special agent with Mobile’s FBI office, said this area in particular benefits from a strong law enforcement partnership at the local, state and federal level.
“One of the main lessons from 9/11 is that no single agency can do this on their own,” Astralaga said. “It’s imperative for us to work very closely with all law enforcement because they see and hear things first that may accumulate and point to a possible or viable threat.”
Echoing recent comments from FBI Director James Comey, Astralaga said one of the main challenges the FBI and other agencies face locally and nationally is preventing “lone wolf” terrorists, whether they’re motivated by Islamic extremism or any number of other reasons. In most of those situations, Astralaga said, attackers have been successful by staying quiet during the planning stages.
Kevin Levy, commander of the Mobile Police Department’s cyber intelligence unit, discussed how the MPD works to prevent terrorism or other violence and to effectively respond if it does occur.
“Our job is to link as much public digital information as we can, make sense of it and hopefully prevent something from happening,” Levy said. “If unfortunately something does occur, our next step is to create an environment where we can respond as rapidly as possible.”
One major tool the department has recently implemented in support of the effort is Project Shield, a public-private partnership providing remote access to more than 3,200 cameras located in private business, schools and other locations throughout the greater Mobile area. Levy was quick to dismiss concerns about “Big Brother” by adding that the department doesn’t have the desire or time to sit around watching the available camera feeds without cause.
“If you’re a responding officer in an active shooting going into a school and you come to a four-way hallway, it’d be nice to know that the guy with the gun is on the right,” Levy said. “That’s the type of information we can provide to someone on the ground in real time now.”
Though he’s worked with cyber intelligence for years, Levy has only been with the MPD since June — retiring from a career with the U.S. Secret Service, which was moved under the Department of Homeland Security following passing of the Patriot Act in 2001.
Levy agreed with Astralaga that 9/11 fundamentally changed the way local law enforcement communicates with federal agencies, something he said he “lived through” during his time with the Secret Service. According to Levy, the Patriot Act began requiring communication between law enforcement agencies as well as with those who oversee critical infrastructure like oil and gas pipelines, water treatment facilities, petrochemical storage areas and academic or financial institutions.
Obviously, Levy couldn’t discuss what specifically could be considered a vulnerable target in the Mobile area, but he did say all those areas are monitored continuously by the MPD and other agencies.
“I can only speak for the city of Mobile, but we’re constantly looking for and making sure that we have everything covered and everything protected. I’ll just leave it at that,” he said. “If we become aware of something we’re going to take steps to make sure it’s not a threat the best we can.”
However, what the city has in intelligence, it might lack in direct firepower — at least when compared to other local agencies. Recent media reports have highlighted the fact that not all MPD officers are armed with rifles, unlike the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, which has provided each of its 170 deputies with semi-automatic long guns.
“Our tactical teams have tremendous capacity and firepower, and we now regularly train for what we call the active shooters, whether it’s terrorist related or just a nut with a gun that goes crazy,” Sheriff Sam Cochran said. “We’re equipped to take on significant challenges, and of course, we’ve had the advantage of some of the military programs, but most of that is the same as what you can buy on the commercial market. These just helped us save some money.”
The MCSO has also started providing training to businesses and schools for managing active shooting scenarios, something other departments around the country have begun devoting resources to as well.
According to Cochran, deputies with specialized experience can tailor training to a specific environment in order to help employees and students learn how to survive, escape and even stop an active shooter. He added his office would soon be launching a similar program in a webinar series for those who want to access the training online.
Levy pointed out federal resources, county firepower and local intelligence can easily be used in concert with one another at a moment’s notice. At MPD headquarters, a joint operations center houses regular meetings between members of each department where, in the event of an emergency, information can be shared remotely between the agencies in real time.
Still, Levy said the community itself holds an active role in preventing potential dangers from becoming a reality in Mobile, referring to the adage, “if you see something, say something.”
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