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Back to Archives | Back to October 2008 Contents 

Bridging the Federal-Local Divide on Counterterrorism Efforts: Arlington County, Virginia

By Leonard C. Boyle, Director, U.S. Terrorist Screening Center, Washington, D.C.; and M. Douglas Scott, Chief of Police, Arlington County, Virginia

t is hardly news to say that relationships among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies can sometimes be tenuous. Every agency has its own stories about how the “other guys” just do not seem to get it. But a relatively new approach to countering the terrorist threat to the United States—a consolidated terrorist watch list—is helping to change that.

Use of this consolidated terrorist watch list, officially called the Terrorist Screening Database, is resulting in a significant rise in cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies on homeland security. As an example, the Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department (ACPD) and the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) have worked together on, and taken individual initiative in, four key areas regarding the use of the watch list: training, empowerment, support, and feedback. For any law enforcement agency interested in helping to strengthen partnership at the federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement levels and improving homeland security, these four areas of focus offer a path to success.


Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. government agencies maintained 12 separate watch lists about terrorism suspects. Agencies inconsistently shared information among themselves—and rarely with the state and local law enforcement levels. If a sheriff’s deputy in Saginaw County, Michigan, had pulled over someone suspected by the federal government to be involved in terrorist activity, chances are the deputy would have had no idea about the ongoing federal investigation. Among the many things that changed after September 11 was that approach to watch listing and with it the lack of cooperation across all levels of the law enforcement community.

Just over five years ago, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6 (HSPD-6) established a consolidated terrorist watch list, one list maintained by the federal government of all those known or suspected of terrorist activity to be shared among all frontline screening agencies. In December 2003, the TSC opened its doors to begin consolidating and maintaining the new list.

This new, consolidated list would become one of the most effective counterterrorism tools available to the United States. Congress’s independent investigative agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), concluded that the watch list has “helped to combat terrorism” and “enhanced the U.S. government’s counterterrorism efforts.”1

As important as this finding is, how the GAO reached its conclusion—and its impact on federal, state, and local law enforcement cooperation—is the critical point for law enforcement leadership.

Early this year, the ACPD established its own Homeland Security Section. One of the three September 11 targets, the Pentagon, is located in Arlington County; the department therefore experienced firsthand the devastation of a terrorist attack. Staffed by the men and women facing this threat on the front line every day, the ACPD wanted to improve its ability to confront the threat directly with an enhanced focus.

Having established the section under the leadership of Captain Kevin Reardon, the ACPD began implementing the training and intelligence systems it needed to establish a truly effective homeland security function within its force. Less than a year later, the successful efforts of Captain Reardon, Sergeant Anita Capitello, and Detective Jason Bryk got a significant boost when the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agreed to assign a full-time special agent to Arlington’s Homeland Security Section. Special Agent Ed Presley has become an invaluable addition to the ACPD team, bringing expertise and relationships that have substantially enhanced the agency’s efforts.

These two efforts converged in a successful partnership to combat terrorism in an important part of the national capital region. But terrorists do not always limit their activities to major East Coast cities. Encounters with those known to participate in or suspected of terrorist activity have taken place across the country, from metropolitan areas to small villages. Every department and agency needs to be engaged in this fight, and experience has shown that there are four simple things every agency can do to help strengthen the federal-state-local partnership and maximize its contribution to protecting the U.S. homeland: train its officers, empower them to act, support them with appropriate resources, and provide them with feedback.

Train, Train, Train

Training is the key to the success of the terrorist watch list in countering terrorism. The GAO has credited the rise in positive matches with the list—those individuals positively identified as the person on the list—to efforts to “educate federal departments and agencies, state and local law enforcements, and foreign governments about appropriate screening opportunities.”2

The TSC provides watch list training programs for law enforcement agencies at all levels, including train-the-trainer programs for state and local law enforcement through the U.S. Department of Justice’s State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT) program. SLATT is funded through the Bureau of Justice Assistance and provides law enforcement personnel with specialized training and resources to combat terrorism and extremist criminal activity.

As an example of how the terrorist watch list is helping to bring together federal, state, and local agencies, the training information the TSC offers can easily be used and adapted by local law enforcement agencies. The ACPD edited the TSC’s training slides into a specified briefing for its own internal training.

Arlington County has gone a step further. The Homeland Security Section team conducts regular, quarterly roll-call training with officers on how to handle possible watch list matches—called “hits”—they get when running information through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) as well as any updates with the program. This roll-call training also gives Homeland Security Section members Detective Bryk and Special Agent Presley an opportunity to provide feedback on cases started by road officers. The ACPD also identified additional, related training opportunities offered by federal agencies such as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) training program for how to identify fraudulent documents.

Training is available for any state, local, or tribal agency interested in ensuring that its leadership and officers are as vigilant and prepared as they can be for any encounters they have with terrorist watch list suspects.

Empower Officers

On the federal side, the TSC has also recognized that state and local agencies want to do as much as they can to make a contribution to securing the homeland. To provide information to the leadership of these organizations, the TSC maintains a very active briefing program, addressing dozens of law enforcement conferences every year to provide information about the critical nature of state and local agencies’ roles in watch listing and to encourage them to take the basic steps they need to make the contributions they all want to make.

The ACPD’s experience has been that patrol officers want to do more to contribute to combating terrorism and want to be more involved in local homeland security efforts. Arlington County leadership has sought to use that interest as a basis for empowering ACPD officers to get more engaged in the efforts led by its Homeland Security Section.

ACPD officers are regularly encouraged through normal briefings to be on the lookout for terrorist watch list–related encounters. They are provided with regular, quarterly reminders about watch listing in addition to the roll-call training mentioned already.

The ACPD requires that every watch list–related encounter be called in to the TSC. Any positive hit must be documented in a police report that is then forwarded to the ACPD’s Homeland Security Section, which follows up on the hit. This approach has helped give officers the direction they need and ensures that necessary information is collected and forwarded to the TSC.

Offer Support

Officers’ sense of empowerment, once established, must be backed up by appropriate support. The TSC, directly as well as through fusion centers, provides information and training support for how to handle encounters with watch-listed subjects. The TSC Call Center operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist law enforcement agencies with possible encounters with suspected terrorists. In addition, the TSC operates an Intelligence Unit that develops analytical products for use by law enforcement agencies about watch list–related activity in their jurisdictions. This information and these services ensure that state and local law enforcement agencies committed to being active in their approach to watch list–related encounters have the backup they need to do the job well.

The ACPD has taken a similar approach and has worked closely with the FBI and the TSC on its own homeland security efforts. In addition to using the TSC Call Center for every terrorist watch list–related encounter in Arlington County, the special agent assigned by the FBI to the ACPD’s Homeland Security Section interacts with the FBI and other agencies to provide a direct link for information about watch list–related activity in Arlington County. For other state and local law enforcement agencies, fusion centers can help provide this critical link.

At an even more practical level, both the TSC and the ACPD offer a show of support for officers who properly handle watch list–related encounters. When the ACPD started its Homeland Security Section, the chief sent a letter to each officer who documented a positive hit and gathered possible information on the subject(s). Those letters from the chief serve as reminders to officers that their efforts are recognized as having made important contributions to keeping the nation more secure. The TSC has now adopted a similar program, where departments are acknowledged for their proper handling of a watch list hit.

Provide Feedback

Historically speaking, perhaps the biggest historical disconnect between state and local law enforcement agencies and the federal government—and even between agency leadership and patrol officers—was what happened with information. Too often, information went over to the federal government, but little came back. In recent years, one of the areas where the cooperation between the TSC and agencies like the ACPD on watch list–related activity has been most successful is providing feedback through improved information sharing.

The TSC has made a commitment to provide as much information as possible about encounters with watch-listed subjects to any state or local law enforcement agency that is interested. The TSC has expanded real-time notification of encounters for fusion centers and currently posts daily reports of encounters across the country to Law Enforcement Online (LEO), with plans to expand to the Regional Information Sharing Systems Network (RISSNET), the Homeland Security Information Network State and Local Intelligence Portal Community of Interest (HS SLIC), and other widely utilized unclassified systems. For the first time, state and local agencies are provided with a view of the terrorist encounter activity taking place in or near their jurisdictions. The GAO found that a result of these efforts was to create “a bridge among screening agencies, the law enforcement community, and the intelligence community.”3

The ACPD, in a similar fashion, has woked to provide information throughout its department on terrorist encounters and the contribution officers make to any ongoing investigation. Detective Bryk and Special Agent Presley use their quarterly roll-call training to provide feedback on cases started by road officers. The ACPD’s own efforts are assisted in many cases by the information it receives from the TSC about encounters in its jurisdiction, as well as the information Special Agent Presley can collect and share.

Obviously, not every police department is going to have an FBI agent available to help follow up on encounter information to see where it leads. However, there is an increasing tendency for federal agencies making use of terrorist watch list encounter information to share that information with the state and local levels, and the TSC can be a liaison for state and local agencies to access the watch list–related information that is available.

Partnership Works

The United States is not as secure as it can be as long as tensions exist between state and local law enforcement agencies on the one hand, which face the terrorist threat on the front lines, and the federal agencies on the other, which are assigned to investigate and eliminate those threats. This once significant tension is nowadays shrinking on homeland security issues, in part because of increased cooperation regarding the consolidated terrorist watch list. The relationship between the TSC and the ACPD is an example of how partnerships can work successfully. The core of what these two agencies have accomplished together can be replicated by any agencies around the country interested in helping to strengthen the federal-state-local law enforcement partnership and to make an improved contribution to homeland security.

For more information about TSC training programs and materials or Call Center or Intelligence Unit analytical reports, readers can contact Terence Wyllie at 703-418-9586 or via e-mail at ;  For more information about the Department of Justice’s SLATT program, readers can visit For more information about the ACPD’s homeland security and watch list encounter training and participation, readers can contact Captain Reardon at 703-228-4091 or via e-mail at . For more information about how to access information about terrorist watch list encounters in other jurisdictions, readers can contact Mark Korkolis at 703-418-9575 or via e-mail at■


1Terrorist Watch List Screening: Recommendations to Enhance Management Oversight, Reduce Potential Screening Vulnerabilities, and Expand Use of the List, statement of Eileen R. Larence before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, October 24, 2007 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2007), 2, 8, (accessed August 29, 2008).
2Terrorist Watch List Screening: Opportunities Exist to Enhance Management Oversight, Reduce Vulnerabilities in Agency Screening Processes, and Expand Use of the List, report to congressional requesters (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Accountability Office, October 2007), 25, (accessed August 29, 2008).
3Ibid., 28.


From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 10, October 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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