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Back to Archives | Back to August 2010 Contents 

Defeating Complacency

By Thomas M. Fresenius, Lieutenant Colonel, New York State Police; John Pikus, Special Agent in Charge, FBI/Albany, New York; Christopher Cummings, Major, New York State Police; and Laurie Bennett, Deputy Assistant Director, FBI, Washington, D.C.

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This article is based on a problem statement and action plan for the FBI Leadership in Counter-Terrorism (LinCT) Program.

t has been almost nine years since the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Faced with competing priorities, are law enforcement executives adequately engaging their agencies, the public, and private sectors in counterterrorism activities, or have they become disengaged? Are there steps that counterterrorism leaders can take to reengage and reinvigorate the police and their communities?

Defining the Threat—Globally, Nationally, and Locally

In the days, months, and even years following the 9/11 attacks, law enforcement witnessed a public initially willing to make substantial sacrifices to assist in efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks. Although Americans are willing to accept extra security measures at airports, the perception is that they are less willing to become actively involved in counterterrorism efforts and instead have shifted the counterterrorism burden back squarely onto the shoulders of law enforcement. At a time of decreasing budgets at the state and local law enforcement levels, a need for an engaged public to act as a force multiplier exists. Law enforcement still needs to keep pace with regular crime prevention, as well as ensure the safety and security of businesses, homes, and communities, all while trying to balance its counterterrorism mission.

Former U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff reminded the public that “The great weapon they [terrorists] have is persistence and patience, and the one weakness that we have is the tendency to lose patience and become complacent. . . . There is nothing these terrorists are doing or saying that could lead a reasonable person to believe that they have somehow lost interest. Our biggest challenge is making sure we do not drop our guard because time passes.”1

Two years ago, then assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Counter-Terrorism Division Michael Heimbach stated “. . . I’m really concerned about the complacency setting in amongst the American people.” Heimbach further stated, “Let there be no mistake, al-Qaida or other like-minded individuals are still focused on attacking the homeland.”2 In early 2010, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that the threat of a terrorist attack against the United States is becoming more worrisome “with each passing day.” Law enforcement agencies have disrupted several plots in the past year as terrorists “remain determined to strike the United States,” he said. “As the Christmas Day [2009] attempted bombing illustrates, the threats we face are becoming more diverse and more dangerous with each passing day. We not only face threats from al-Qaeda, but also from self-directed groups not part of al-Qaeda’s formal structure.”3

Officials worldwide worry that complacency has become a major impediment to prevention programs. Counterterrorism units rely upon suspicious activity reporting by the public, businesses, and law enforcement to identify investigative leads for potential terrorism. Ironically, law enforcement’s successful prevention and detection programs have likely fueled apathy. Richard Clarke, former U.S. counterterrorism advisor, opined that successful counterterrorism initiatives were generating complacency.4 Even as early as 2003, confronting resistance to the passage of a United Nations resolution on counterterrorism, Spain’s Prime Minister warned the organization against complacency and urged the Security Council to make counterterrorism initiatives a priority.5

Pressing police priorities currently are handling calls for service and protecting the public within their jurisdictions, all while trying to control crime. These priorities ultimately take precedence over terrorism prevention programs and potential terrorist threats. It becomes difficult for law enforcement executives to justify dedicating resources to counterterrorism efforts when most agencies are located in areas not perceived to be primary targets or to possess significant critical infrastructure. Countless law enforcement leaders have articulated that they are just barely getting by with their personnel handling traditional crimes. Complacency is not the reason their agencies are not working to further counterterrorism efforts, they argue; it is the fact that it is just not practical or justifiable to make counterterrorism their top priority.

The U.S. counterterrorism strategy must be refocused, taking into account scarce resources and competing responsibilities. Police must apply their everyday policing skills to counterterrorism, by identifying and collecting information about suspicious incidents and collecting and forwarding relevant details to intelligence personnel within their agency or to intelligence and fusion centers or task forces. Incorporating counterterrorism into routine police practice ensures an “economy of preparedness.”6

An analysis of the initial clues leading to the thwarting of major terrorist plots since 9/11 indicates that most of the major cases were determined through either law enforcement detection or the public reporting suspicious activity. Many fusion centers have been analyzing thwarted plots in an effort to develop indicators of possible attack planning when processing and analyzing submitted intelligence information. The New York State Intelligence Center has authored Project Vigilance, which studies 22 thwarted terror plots since 9/11. A map representing the location of the 22 plots can be found in figure 1. Project Vigilance provides a timeline for the 88 identified plotters’ residences, travel, and activities, identifying specific opportunities where law enforcement may encounter suspicious behavior. The results will be used to educate law enforcement about terrorists’ backgrounds and behaviors and will reinforce the exigency of street officers’ roles in detecting terrorism (see figure 2).

“Use of Technology” is one of the significant categories included in Project Vigilance. Using open-source material, Project Vigilance analyzes the 88 plotters’ use of current technologies, including cell phones, websites, e-mail, and personal computers. Fifty-nine (67 percent) of these individuals were found to have used at least one form of technology to aid plot objectives. Figure 3 represents “Use of Technology,” based on these 59 individuals.

A similar effort, John Hollywood, PhD, et al.’s “Building on Clues: Methods to Help State and Local Law Enforcement Detect and Characterize Terrorist Activity” summarizes disrupted terrorist plots reported by the media. Plot objectives and initial clues leading to the discovery reveal that of the 25 plots reviewed, only 5 (20 percent) of the initial clues came from intelligence-dedicated operations (for example, the CIA, the FBI, and the U.S. Department of Defense). Eight (32 percent) came from unexpected discoveries made during other police investigations; six (24 percent) came from tips reporting a potential plot to law enforcement; and an additional six came from follow-ups on suspicious activity: two (8 percent) from direct police action in response to suspicious activity observations; and four (16 percent) from following up on tips.

Eighty percent of the initial clues came from observing, reporting, and properly acting on concerning behavior, including directly threatening behavior (such as openly discussing plans for terror attacks) and suspicious activity (such as conducting target site surveillance). Several examples are listed in table 1.7

Terrorist threats are a permanent reality. Terrorist organizations have proven to be resilient, committed, and willing to adapt their tactics to achieve their goals. Avoiding a terrorist attack on U.S. soil depends directly on law enforcement leading successful detection and prevention programs.

New York State has overcome significant cultural and jurisdictional issues while encouraging local law enforcement and public- and private-sector counterterrorism vigilance. Complacency, however, has been a more insidious barrier to homeland security efforts. Within every law enforcement agency, it is tempting to shelve antiterrorism fforts because, daily, there are too many pressing issues for police to address. Yet New York’s strategy draws strength and inspiration from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano: “One thing I worry about quite frankly is complacency, and this notion that the Department of Homeland Security will take care of it. . . . We can coordinate, we can lead, we can do a lot of things, but they are shared responsibilities.”8

What are our law enforcement executives’ current challenges? They must inspire their teams to collect information, share all-crimes intelligence, and reinvigorate public and private partnerships. The following strategies to surmount these challenges are suggested in light of pressing economic and budgetary hardships. With the support of law enforcement leaders and their personnel, with some cooperation, understanding, and very little sacrifice, agency executives can reengage law enforcement, the private sector, and the public in the war against terrorism.

State, County, Local, and Tribal Law Enforcement

As in many states, New York’s law enforcement community is comprised of hundreds of different federal, state, county, local, and tribal agencies. In this home-rule state, it is daunting to build consensus among agencies that vary in size, responsibility, staffing, and resources. Despite influential leaders coordinating and promoting counterterrorism initiatives, counterterrorism as a primary focus has diminished in many areas of the state. Whether the cause is complacency or issues related to prioritization of available resources, New York State is taking action to sustain strategic and tactical counterterrorism efforts.

In light of competing priorities, encouraging and maintaining law enforcement executives’ support for counterterrorism programs remains a challenge.

Several recommendations to address this challenge follow:

  • States should institute an organizational structure that coordinates counterterrorism efforts on a regional basis. To facilitate the collection and dissemination of homeland security–related intelligence and information, New York State was divided into 16 regional counterterrorism zones (CTZs). Each CTZ includes state, local, and federal representation and coordinates its activities with the New York State Intelligence Center (NYSIC) and the New York State Office of Homeland Security. Using the CTZ structure, agencies are able to pool resources and increase efficiency when conducting counterterrorism efforts. This structure should be headed by a governing body that encourages law enforcement executives to participate in discussions about counterterrorism progress, policies, and threats; set strategic goals; and advise the state’s homeland security advisor. This governing committee should comprise federal, state, county, local, and tribal agencies. New York State established the Executive Committee on Counterterrorism (ECCT), which is composed of law enforcement executives from each of the CTZs. Insofar as possible, representation is drawn equally from police chiefs, sheriffs, and members of the New York State Police. New York’s ECCT participation has fostered greater understanding and responsibility; quarterly meetings maintain interest in and support of New York’s counterterrorism posture.
  • “Red Cell” exercise participation tests the success of local law enforcement prevention, deterrence, and response protocols, along with the coordination and sharing of suspicious activity information. Red Cell operations engage multiple law enforcement agencies, the public, and the private sector. Exercises identify gaps and successes in counterterrorism planning. New York plans to expand Red Cell exercises throughout the state. Future plans call for the inclusion of bordering states, gradually expanding in complexity. Red Cells offer law enforcement executives the opportunity to stay engaged and test their agencies’ vigilance, awareness, and information-sharing capabilities, as well as their community outreach efforts.
  • Law enforcement executives should demonstrate their commitment to counterterrorism awareness and detection to patrol officers. Policies and procedures must be enacted that reward counterterrorism detection, reporting, and prevention efforts. New York’s field intelligence officers (the equivalent to other states’ terrorism, intelligence, or fusion liaison officers) are encouraged to communicate with officers and their supervisors, acknowledging their reporting and thanking them for their participation.
  • Executives should review their promotion and evaluation processes to ensure that information sharing and intelligence efforts are rewarded.
  • In line with best practices of intelligence-led policing, agency executives must incorporate counterterrorism awareness and intelligence collection programs into regular patrol operations. They should communicate with task forces, intelligence, and fusion centers, and ensure that patrol officers and their supervisors are provided with priority intelligence requirements.
  • In light of this economy of preparedness, law enforcement agencies should make sure their police academy curricula address intelligence training and that refresher training for seasoned veterans encourages community engagement initiatives. Agencies should incorporate counterterrorism training into basic and regular in-service law enforcement officer training. When providing counterterrorism and intelligence training, executives should consider reaching out to traditionally underrepresented criminal justice personnel such as federal, county, and state corrections officers. Expanding cultural awareness training for law enforcement increases familiarity with cultures and immigrant communities. Statewide, continued training on Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) and intelligence collection will benefit patrol officers. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) SAR Front Line Officer Training curriculum, being developed as part of the Nationwide SAR Initiative (NSI) training strategy, is a new tool to train law enforcement officers in the field. Further information on the three components of the NSI training strategy is available at
  • Learn from the past and prepare for the future. Through the NYSIC’s Project Vigilance state and local law enforcement will understand pertinent information about each suspect’s background, movements, and activities. This demonstrates to local police officers that these individuals live, travel, work, and associate with other people within their jurisdictions during operational planning activities.

Actions speak louder than words: Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) and fusion centers promote active federal, state, and local information sharing. The resources and experience of local law enforcement bring continuity to JTTFs and fusion centers.

Agency executives must heed several recommendations to successfully maintain and promote these centers:

  • Seek alternative funding sources to enhance response operations. Limited funding creates disparate law enforcement deployment capabilities in response to new threat intelligence.
  • Assign valid and substantive duties and cases to state, county, and local JTTF members—particularly cases tied to their geographical area of responsibility.
  • Provide feedback and public recognition of task force members’ contributions at board meetings, roll call, or official award ceremonies.
  • Pursue federal and state funding for law enforcement personnel, including analysts, to work at JTTFs and fusion centers.

Timely communication between federal agencies and fusion centers speeds intelligence to law enforcement officers. Fusion centers require greater speed and more specifics on intelligence bulletins from the DHS and the FBI so local law enforcement remains a vital part of the team’s defense and offense. This can be accomplished through continuous participation and dialogue by local law enforcement in organizations such as Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council, and Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group.

Community Engagement

New York law enforcement strives to coordinate and sustain public sector outreach efforts. Recommendations for other agencies follow:

  • Engage the community through community meetings and public service announcements to focus attention on reporting suspicious activity through existing mechanisms.
  • Encourage civic leaders to invite local law enforcement for public presentations to communicate how they have enhanced routine patrol operations with counterterrorism training and awareness.
  • Approach and extend services to isolated populations. With the assistance of law enforcement executives, evaluate the degree to which law enforcement engages immigrant communities—particularly Muslim, Somali, or other ethnic communities, which tend to remain closed enclaves. Address deficits in community relationships with community policing, increased community leadership dialogue, and community–law enforcement education.
  • Publicly acknowledge community leaders and citizens. Recognize and applaud their engagement and leadership in counterterrorism and anticrime efforts within the community.
  • Brief community leaders after a significant counterterrorism case investigation, action, or arrest in the community. Any briefing must be timely, candid, and allow for a three-way dialogue between the community, the law enforcement officers, and the intelligence entities. Communities and leaders must provide enough information to assure them of the scope and seriousness of law enforcement action and to quell any discontent based upon misinformation.

Business Support

Integrating the private sector supports counterterrorism efforts, discourages complacency, and reduces duplication of efforts and resources. Recommendations for engaging the business community follow:

  • Develop strong private-sector partnerships. A host of industries share security concerns and find common ground in the fight against crime and terrorism. New York State law enforcement and New York’s Office of Homeland Security conduct private sector outreach through a New York State-specific program, Operation SafeGuard. Operation Safeguard is a public outreach program generating public awareness to private industry and sectors and to citizens in general by providing descriptions of potential terrorist indicators and suspicious activities, along with a means to report such activity through a 24/7 toll-free terrorism tip line. Other programs exist at the federal level, such as the FBI’s InfraGard and the DHS sector-specific Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC).
  • Compare and share resources from the private sector and law enforcement through a private-sector committee. Developing and communicating tactical expectations in advance of an emergency will create transparency, diminish misunderstanding between primary partners, and guard against duplication of effort and resources. When a significant emergency occurs, preplanning ensures communication, appropriate response, business continuity, and communication.
  • Plan an annual conference or teleconference with security directors from the major companies within the state to create an open information-sharing environment and to enhance relations and discuss terrorism. Attendees should be briefed about shared concerns, such as cyberthreats, communications, business continuity capabilities, and critical infrastructure risks.

Measuring Outcomes

Maintaining and enforcing robust counterterrorism efforts seems challenging enough, but beyond that, how should agency executives measure their success? This is an often overlooked aspect of counterterrorism strategies. While measurement largely relies on outputs rather than outcomes, the following suggestions might be relevant as jurisdictions establish baselines and measure changes across time:

  • Increase and maintain consistent attendance of law enforcement executives at CTZ meetings.
  • Track the number of intelligence and suspicious activity reports reported to fusion centers by local law enforcement.
  • Evaluate the counterterrorism training and awareness programs developed for and completed by officers and executives.
  • Increase Red Cell operations and ensure that after-action reviews are completed by participants.
  • Consider “lessons learned” studies of thwarted terrorist plots to identify when and how law enforcement became aware of preplanning activities. Take steps to improve efforts.

FBI Director Robert Mueller noted that:
. . . With the emergence of homegrown terrorism, the role of our partners in state and local law enforcement becomes that much more important. They are the feet on the street—the first to see new trends in crime and terrorism . . . there is no room for complacency. . . . Our greatest weapon against terrorism is unity. That unity is built on information sharing and coordination among our partners in the law enforcement and the intelligence communities. It is built on partnerships with the private sector and effective outreach to the public as our eyes and ears. It is built on the idea that, together, we are smarter and stronger than we are standing alone.9

Failure to reengage the interests, capabilities, and knowledge of officers and their communities in the war against terrorism places the United States at further risk for successful execution of terrorist acts. Concern about complacency has been central in recent years, especially as federal funding mechanisms are reprioritized. As the value of DHS funding is reviewed and scrutinized within the federal government, concern is generated that changes in priorities may substantially diminish federal, state, and local law enforcement focus and capabilities. Using an all-crimes approach, law enforcement leadership must merge counterterrorism protocols with police operations. Skillfully observing, collecting, and sharing intelligence should be a mainstream law enforcement practice.

Certainly, a number of these proposed recommendations can be adopted with minimal resource reallocation. To effectively address complacency, however, the proposed recommendations should be reviewed by executive counterterrorism personnel and considered when evaluating existing programs.

Sustaining counterterrorism practices should not be solely driven by the availability of DHS funding. Plenty of cost-free steps can be taken, including the merging of existing counterterrorism practices and programs into traditional anticrime operations and promoting innovation and best practices by rethinking, refining, and funding current criminal intelligence practices to incorporate counterterrorism.

Law enforcement balances multiple roles: crime fighting, terrorism protection, community relations, and engaging the public. Defining and maintaining a clear and consistent message, by unifying federal, state, and local leadership, is one of the most significant factors in fighting complacency. Executives encouraging counterterrorism vigilance, partnering with public and private sectors, and pledging to support efforts for a secure future demonstrate commitment and send a clear message to other law enforcement officers. It is imperative that the leaders within federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, in coordination with homeland security officers, acknowledge the challenges posed by counterterrorism operations and effectively blaze a path forward. Enacting these proposed recommendations will significantly diminish complacency and will reengage target populations to act appropriately when facing suspicious circumstances. ■      

1J.J. Green, “‘Earth-Shattering’ Events Worry Chertoff” (includes an interview with Michael Chertoff), WTOP Radio, February 11, 2009, (accessed May 2009).
2J.J. Green, “‘Complacency’ Worries Top FBI Counterterrorism Official” (includes an interview with Michael Heimbach), WTOP Radio, July 14, 2008, (accessed May 27, 2010).
3Lorraine Woellert, “FBI Chief Tells Congress Terrorist Threat Grows More Worrisome,” Bloomberg Businessweek, January 20, 2010, (accessed May 27, 2010).
4Chris Strohm, “Former Counterterrorism Czar Cites Creeping Complacency,”, May 26, 2005, (accessed June 29, 2009).
5United Nations Security Council, “‘We Must Not Fall into Complacency’ in Fight against Terrorism, Prime Minister of Spain Tells Security Council,” press release, SC/7754, 4752nd Meeting (PM), June 5, 2003, (accessed June 29, 2009).
6“Hard Won Lessons: The New Paradigm—Merging Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism Strategies,” ed. Mark Riebling, Safe Cities Project, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (January 2006), (accessed May 28, 2010).
7As excerpted from John Hollywood, PhD, et al., “Building on Clues: Methods to Help State and Local Law Enforcement Detect and Characterize Terrorist Activity,” research brief, Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, RTI International (May 2009), 15, (accessed May 28, 2010).
8Katie Connolly, “Napolitano Mum on SCOTUS, Gitmo; Worries about Complacency,” The Gaggle blog,, May 19, 2009, (accessed June 29, 2009).
9Director Robert S. Mueller III, Federal Bureau of Investigation, speech to the City Club of Cleveland, Ohio, June 23, 2006, (accessed June 11, 2009).

Please cite as:

Thomas M. Fresenius, John Pikus, Christopher Cummings, and Laurie Bennett, "Defeating Complacency," The Police Chief 77 (August 2010): 64-71, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 8, August 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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