Terror War Changes Role of Police Chiefs

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Hurricane Katrina forced us all to reflect on responsibilities of federal and local law enforcement. But Miami Police Chief John Timoney and Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton both say that their attention is more focused than ever on protecting their cities from terrorist attack.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The big domestic news story of 2005, Hurricane Katrina, made us all reflect on the responsibilities of federal and local law enforcement. As we head into 2006, we wanted to check in with the police chiefs of two major cities. We spoke with Chief John Timoney of Miami and Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. They say that more and more, their attention is focused now on protecting their cities from terrorist attack.

Chief WILLIAM BRATTON (Los Angeles Police Department): One of the issues of concern that American police forces and police chiefs have is trying to get timely accurate intelligence out of the federal government, the various agencies that are responsible for giving it to us. And because of frustration, because of the lack of current capability to get that information to us quickly, we have been in the process of setting up our own networking system so that American police chiefs can talk with each other fairly quickly. If I've got an issue in my subway or my port or my airport, we're developing a system that'll be in place shortly after the first of the year that will literally within about 20 minutes be able to put together phone trees of chiefs of other cities to exchange information in a timely fashion. Is what you're hearing on the news, on CNN about a bomb threat--is it actually a bomb threat? Is there anything of substance to it?

And we're generally working with our colleagues in the federal government to get better communication systems with them, but the reality is, we still have a way to go and the good news is we're much farther along than we were a few years ago.

ELLIOTT: Why do you think you need to be doing this as opposed to relying on the federal government to get your that information?

Chief JOHN TIMONEY (Miami Police Department): Timoney here. Well, I think as Chief Bratton points out, it is better the sharing of information, but there's still some issues on the federal level. For example, my whole career was spent dealing with the FBI. There was one source of information, even if that source was not the best, that they weren't necessarily sharing everything. Now as best as I can tell, there are three separate federal agencies who are supposed to share with us and that actually in some respects causes more confusion because when more than one individual or unit is in charge, then there's nobody really in charge.

And so there's some confusion at the lower level with regard to who in Washington ultimately holds the responsibility. Is it the FBI that we usually deal with? Is it Homeland Security or the new so-called intelligence czar Negroponte? And so that answer at least for me has not been satisfied coming out of Washington.

ELLIOTT: You know, this past October when New York alerted its citizens to a possible terrorist threat on the subway, Homeland Security officials sort of played down the threat. I'm wondering how citizens are supposed to make sense of all this. Who are people supposed to listen to, their local officials, the federal government? I mean, who is ultimately responsible?

Chief TIMONEY: Well, this is John Timoney here. Looking at that from the outside, that was actually a pretty embarrassing moment for law enforcement where it looked like the NYPD and the FBI were on one page and Homeland Security was almost defiantly on the other page, and the whole issue of these turf battles, they still continue.

You know, I was talking to a friend of mine who will remain nameless in Washington, who talked about--not all but some people that the turf sometimes is more important than the mission. And that's crazy. And so somebody, whether it's George Bush or somebody else, they've either got to stand up and say, `Listen, this one person's in charge and let them figure it out.' They said Negroponte, but, you know, he's been in place now a year and I don't see too much coming out by way of saying, you know, `I'm ultimately in charge,' and one opinion coming out of Washington.

Chief BRATTON: I'll reinforce that also, John, that we need to get better at this. The American public doesn't want confusion and one of the things that the New York situation that you referenced highlighted was the issue of who makes the decision relative to what a city decides to do with intelligence. In some instances, the threat is so specific, that under our laws the federal government would really step into the breach to deal with it, working very closely with the local counterparts. But sometimes the information is so vague that then it is up to the local political leadership and law enforcement leadership to make a decision relative to their city and their particular jurisdiction.

ELLIOTT: Are local police departments now in a position where you feel you actually have to make some sort of an end run around the federal government to get your information and do what you have to do to protect your citizens?

Chief BRATTON: Yeah. Mine...

Chief TIMONEY: Go ahead.

Chief BRATTON: Bill Bratton again. And, John, I'll then just give it right back to you, but I'd argue that we're going on parallel paths. The feds are getting better at getting information, but sometimes it's not that the feds won't share the information but they don't have it. Being quite frank with you, the federal agencies are much more focused on the external threat and they just don't have the resources to deal with what we in local policing feels is going to be potentially the more likely threat, and that's the homegrown terrorists, very similar to what London just experienced with its bombings, which Spain experienced with its bombings. So the local threat, we are the first responders, we are the first preventers. We cannot rely totally on the federal government to protect this country. That's just the reality of it.

ELLIOTT: I'd like to go back to one issue that Katrina highlighted.

Chief TIMONEY: Oh, yeah.

ELLIOTT: The New Orleans Police Department really struggled after the storm with the desertion problem.

Chief TIMONEY: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: I'm wondering if that's a concern for either of you. If you were to find yourself in a disaster or God forbid a terrorist attack situation, are you worried at all that all your officers will show up to work?

Chief TIMONEY: John Timoney in Miami. That thought had never entered my mind until Katrina. I don't think it would happen here. I'm pretty convinced it wouldn't. But that was something I'd never seen in policing. I've got myself, and Bill, 37, 38 years. I've never seen something like that.

Chief BRATTON: This is Bill Bratton. I'll share John's perspective. I think that problem was unique to New Orleans for a variety of circumstances, one including the extraordinary extent of that catastrophe, but I also think the residency requirements in New Orleans compounded that. Eighty percent of my officers live outside the city. So that conflict that New Orleans officers found themselves in would in most American cities not present itself in the sense of, you know, if there's a disaster in one particular area.

ELLIOTT: You talk about the conflict. You mean the conflict between, `OK, my home is in this...'

Chief BRATTON: Exactly.

ELLIOTT: `...emergency situation. Do I save my family? Do I go to work?'

Chief BRATTON: You're at home and you basically--the water's coming in and you're there with your family and, you know, do you stay with them or do you report to work. And, again, this was, I think, a unique situation...

Chief TIMONEY: Yeah.

Chief BRATTON: ...that is not likely to occur again with all of the horrific storms, to use that analogy, circumstances that happened in New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: Chief William Bratton of Los Angeles and Chief John Timoney of Miami, Florida, thank you both so much for being with us.

Chief TIMONEY: Very good. Happy new year.

Chief BRATTON: Same. Happy new year, too.

Chief TIMONEY: All right, Bill.

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