I love reading about the “boogie man” names of these dangerous organizations. A decade ago it was Al Queda. Now it is ISIS. There is more of a chance of some reactionary terrorist organization in Escondido than ISIS.
In any event, this program looks like a preventative measure to at least have local authorities check out activities that raises flags. It may be someone local who shuts something down before it happens. The key is for the officers to be professional and filter through the leads.
Escondido police Sgt. Eric Distel decided almost a year ago that the fight against terrorism should start at the basic level – with community members who may see and hear suspicious things before authorities do.
“A lot of these terrorist plots are disrupted by common people,” Distel said in a recent interview. “Increasing public awareness is really important.”
To that end, he has been sending specially trained terrorism liaison officers into the community this year to teach people general guidelines of what suspicious activity might look like and how to report it.
“We need them to buy in and understand what we’re looking for,” Distel said.
Under the program, hardware store clerks are learning that large quantities of certain chemical fertilizers, pipes and caps can be ingredients for bombs.
Train security guards are taught to notice bags or packages abandoned at a station.
Apartment managers are asked to think twice about a group of tenants who share a room with little furniture, pay in cash and keep the curtains closed.
“These things are not illegal, but they might be an indication of terrorist activity, or maybe just crime, maybe a dope dealer’s house,” Distel said. “A lot of reports we get turn out to have no nexus to terrorism. The vast majority are just regular crime, or the people are innocent.”
Distel said the outreach program does not focus on Muslim extremists, but doesn’t ignore them either.
“We don’t racially profile,” Distel said. “We give lists of behaviors, not demographics. We keep things geographically and geopolitically neutral. Terrorist activity transcends political beliefs. Muslim extremism, Christian extremism – it comes in all shapes and forms.”
Randall Hamud, a San Diego civil attorney who, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, represented three Muslim students suspected of connections to three hijackers, expressed some concerns over the Escondido program.
“Any such program needs to be vetted by the Islamic community,” Hamud said. “It’s a very, very fine line between stereotype and supposed suspicious behavior.”
Distel defined terrorism as people who threaten violence for ideological means or to influence politics. The shootings at the South Carolina church and at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles were hate crimes as well as terrorism, he said.
“You look at intent, to start riots or to force a people to leave an area. Whatever their twisted purpose is, it’s certainly terrorism,” Distel said.
He added that ISIS “is on the radar” because its recruiters attract converts with a variety of backgrounds in America and other nations.
The subject of violent extremism is high on the federal government’s agenda.
On Friday, the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services offices, the national Police Executive Research Forum and police agencies from around the country gathered with community groups and individuals in Minneapolis for a forum on the topic.
“We are stressing you don’t wait until there’s a problem, but you try very hard to reach out before a problem,” Sandra Webb, deputy director of the COPS office, said in a phone interview from the conference. “It’s the police role to reach out to communities.”
Webb said the Escondido police approach “is very consistent with community policing.”
“You develop relationships over time rather than in the middle of an incident,” Webb said.
Most police agencies in the county have terrorism liaison officers who are trained to evaluate a potential terrorist threat and report it to the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center, referred to as a fusion center.
The center, run by the Sheriff’s Department along with federal, state and local public safety agencies, filters and shares information about drug trafficking, major crime, threat assessments and terrorism.
Public safety officials can take a free, 8-hour course on threats and terrorism and become a certified terrorism liaison officer. Back in their own jurisdictions, they use their training to assess a situation and help determine the best way to handle it.
One role of a terrorism liaison officer, sheriff’s spokeswoman Jan Caldwell said, is to assist with in-house training and facilitate community meetings.
That role fits with recommendations from a nationwide summit on violent extremism held last fall in Georgia involving many of the same agencies that met Friday in Minneapolis.
A report that came out of the 2014 conference stated that, “Law enforcement collaboration with the people who are best able to detect violent extremism in its early stages – the families, friends, and neighbors of individuals who might cross the line from extremist beliefs to acts of violence – is critical to prevention efforts. (The community) will also do their best to prevent violence if we educate and empower them to do so through outreach programs and other forms of support.”
Among the recommendations that came out of the summit was that law agencies should focus their attention on behaviors, not racial, religious, or ethnic identity.
In October Distel was put in charge of the Escondido Police Department’s terrorism liaison officer program, and found that most of the training was staying in-house. The 32 certified officers handle an average of four or five potentially terrorism-related investigations per month on top of regular duties.
“I did the math on the threats we face, and thought we should be more active,” Distel said.
He created their first community outreach program last spring, making the department one of the few in the county to have one. El Cajon and Chula Vista police agencies and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department have no similar outreach. San Diego police used to, but have no current outreach under a new supervisor.
Distel said sometimes the outreach is just handing out a Department of Justice brochure on potential indicators of terrorist activities.
One brochure intended for farm supply stores suggests employees take note if a person buys large quantities of pesticides or fertilizers with ammonia nitrate, with no apparent knowledge of crops or how to use the products. Another brochure cautions public storage managers to watch out for customers who store or dispose of chemicals or weapons, avoid contact with facility personnel or sneak in not using the entry gate.
San Diego police spokesman Lt. Scott Wahl said when he was in charge of terrorism liaison officers from 2011-2013, they gave talks at high schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, water and utility managers as well as to hotel security before large public events like a political convention.
The officers would tell their audiences to look for odd behaviors – such as people at a hotel who leave bags unattended, snoop into areas of a building where they don’t belong, or give excuses for not showing ID.
“Things you think are completely insignificant could be important,” Wahl said.
He said 200 to 300 San Diego officers have received terrorism liaison training. From 500 to 650 sheriff’s deputies have been certified since 2009, Caldwell said.
In Chula Vista, about a dozen officers and dispatchers have gone through the training, Chula Vista police Capt. Lon Turner said. He said the course gives a background on terrorism “and how it has morphed into what it is today, with homegrown violent extremists. It’s not just ISIS.”
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