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Back to Archives | Back to October 2010 Contents 

No Longer a Federal Responsibility: Local Law Enforcement’s Role in Preventing Terrorist Attacks

By Stuart K. Cameron, Commanding Officer, Suffolk County Police Special Patrol Bureau, Ronkonkoma, New York

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n April 5, 2009, during a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, President Barack Obama commented on an issue that should concern all Americans.

Today, the Cold War has disappeared, but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build, or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global nonproliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.

Now, understand, this matters to people everywhere. One nuclear weapon exploded in one city—be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague—could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.1

Officers train during the LSU WMD Tactical Operations Course.

This critical issue has drastically changed the role of many law enforcement officers over the last several years. Historically, the job of protecting the United States from a nuclear attack has been the responsibility of the federal government, primarily the U.S. military. Realistically, personnel understood that state and local law enforcement personnel could probably do little to reduce the risk of a nuclear missile attack. However, since the threat of a nuclear attack is shifting from a full-scale, state-sponsored nuclear war, launched via intercontinental ballistic missiles, to one wherein terrorists may attempt to smuggle a nuclear or radiological device into a city, state and local law enforcement personnel now can play an important role in reducing this vulnerability. As with any new responsibility, it will take time for law enforcement to adapt and institutionalize this new role. Unfortunately, the United States does not know how long it will be before an attack utilizing a nuclear or radiological device is attempted, so there is some sense of urgency to implementing preventive countermeasures.

Many first responders are familiar with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Target Capability Lists.2 These lists help jurisdictions determine where they should rank themselves within a five-class matrix, based on several factors including total population and population density. A Class Five jurisdiction is placed in a lower target capability than a Class One, due to a reduced risk and lower potential consequences. Once a jurisdiction has been properly ranked within a target capability category, a matrix can be consulted to determine the recommended capability level that the jurisdiction should possess or work to attain. Many of the existing target capabilities are response based, and, therefore, many jurisdictions can readily see the need to acquire these recommended capabilities. They can readily realize the need for preparedness since they may need to respond to that type of event in their communities.

Target Capability Lists

The preventive radiation/nuclear detection mission had been lumped in within the chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) target capability. The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO)3 successfully argued that the preventive detection capability was unique enough to be separated from CBRNE and received preliminary approval to build this new preventive target capability.
An NYPD Counter-Terrorsim detective works with Suffolk county
police officers.
Officers approach the truck for further analysis.

Many of the factors that will determine whether a jurisdiction is a Class Five jurisdiction, thus requiring less overall capability, could also potentially make these jurisdictions attractive logistical staging areas to plan and launch an attack. The very factors that make these areas less likely to be attacked make them more attractive for exploitation by terrorists to initiate, plan, and launch an attack. Terrorists plotting an attack may consider avoiding dense, urban areas due to a greater risk of detection and more robust counterterrorism programs. A jurisdiction that would have been ranked low on the old target capability list, due to total population or population density, could potentially be utilized as a pathway to high-risk targets. Jurisdictions with interstate roadways, navigable waterways, and border crossings may not necessarily rate high for a risk of attack, but those moving to attack an urban center may pass through these areas on their way to the intended target. Therefore, a target capability for the prevention mission is very different than one for a response mission. The new target capability being created by DNDO acknowledges these issues and properly incorporates pathways and other risk factors unique to a preventive mission into the categorization matrix and the resulting target capability guidance.

Countermeasure Deployment

Deploying countermeasures along pathways to reduce the threat of a terrorist attack is nothing new. Anyone who has traveled by air has seen these types of countermeasures in action. The pathway to a commercial airline trip requires one to pass through a Transportation Security Administration screening checkpoint. These checkpoints are designed to reduce the threat of an attack on or by air. The pathway to preventing an attack during air travel is much more clearly defined than the pathway to preventing an attack against a city using a radiological or nuclear device. Numerous vectors could be used to transport a weapon to its intended city target, including waterways, roadways, rail, or air. Covering these pathways at numerous points creates defense in depth, thereby reducing the threat of a successful attack. Redundant detection points need to be established in case one or more of the detectors are out of position, off-line, or unavailable.

Global efforts are being taken to reduce the threat of attack by securing source materials overseas, boarding ships at sea with detection equipment, and screening cargo at ports and border crossings. To create an effective program, these efforts need to be supplemented with efforts focused on the interior of the United States. Internal threat reduction efforts cannot solely be focused and deployed around high-risk target areas, especially when the threat of a nuclear device is concerned. It would be misguided to assume that a terrorist group attempting an attack with a radiological or nuclear device would peacefully give up if its mission is interdicted within a city. The odds are much greater that the group would detonate the device, causing virtually the same effect as if the device had actually reached its intended target. Detection efforts need to be spread along pathways and located in areas that could be used to plan and prepare for an attack. If possible, detecting this type of material needs to occur before the device is fully operational or has been armed. Local and state law enforcement personnel are the keys to this effort because they cover a widespread area, 24 hours every day.

The Role of Local Law Enforcement

Virtually all jurisdictions see the need to be prepared to respond to protect their own citizens, but being engaged in a mission to prevent an attack from occurring in another jurisdiction is less common. Clearly, a radiological or nuclear attack anywhere in the United States would have detrimental effects on the entire country, but, with limited resources, it is difficult to prioritize a prevention mission when the target could be far away.

The 2009 failed plan to bomb the New York City subway system, which involved the Pashtun citizen of Afghanistan and legal permanent resident of the United States Najibullah Zazi, highlights why the prevention mission needs this type of widespread engagement. Assume for a moment that the Zazi plot involved a radiological dispersal device or a nuclear weapon rather than improvised explosives, as appears to be the case. Zazi was plotting this attack from more than one thousand miles from the intended target. As he moved toward the target, he would have had to travel hundreds of miles of pathways across the United States. Many have heard the “Leeds to Luton to London” example of terrorists plotting their attacks from the suburbs and concluding with the 2005 London subway bombings.4 The Zazi case highlights the nature of unrestricted travel within the United States. The suburbs, just thirty to forty miles from the target, and the rural areas, hundreds of miles from the target, can be equally critical to the prevention mission.

Many jurisdictions still see the mission of protecting the United States from a nuclear attack as a strictly federal government responsibility. When the threat was believed to be coming via an intercontinental ballistic missile, this was unquestionably the case. Local government could do nothing to prevent this type of attack. Their role was properly one of response should this unspeakable act occur. That is why local civil defense programs were established and school children throughout America were taught to take cover under their desks. Efforts to improve response and recovery from a radiological or nuclear attack still need to be undertaken, but it would be far better to prevent this type of disaster from ever occurring.

With the newer threat of terrorists smuggling a nuclear or radiological device into the United States, or assembling it from materials already within the country and then transporting it to its intended target, local law enforcement can and should be engaged to prevent an attack. There are measures that they can take to reduce this threat. When al Qaeda announces that it wants to kill 4 million Americans, including 2 million children,5 and they have already made efforts to acquire special nuclear materials, it must be seen as a call to arms for local jurisdictions.

Traffic moving through the chokepoint while being screened.NCPD & SCPD tactical teams and decontamination teams are briefed.

Preventive radiological/nuclear detection (PRND) programs cannot spring up overnight. In many cases, they take years to mature to be fully effective. Equipment must be acquired, procedures need to be drawn, and training must be delivered. Perhaps most daunting of all is the need to convince local law enforcement officers that this is a mission where they can have a positive impact. Any change within law enforcement takes time to implement, whether it is a new proarrest policy for domestic violence or a new community policing model. Engaging local law enforcement in the preventive radiation detection mission is no different and will take time. Since the United States does not have the luxury of knowing when the attack may be attempted, there is a sense of urgency to building out this capability sooner rather than later.

Securing the Cities

The Securing the Cities program is a DNDO pilot in the New York City region to help secure high-risk urban areas from a radiological or nuclear attack. Recently, a large-scale survey was conducted within the STC program area surrounding the city. This survey was designed to elicit feedback from the law enforcement personnel who had been trained and equipped to detect radioactive materials using personal radiation detectors. These officers had received the best equipment and training available, but were they properly engaged in this mission? What else did they feel that they may need? These preliminary results appear very promising; close to 92 percent of the preliminary respondents indicated that they believe their participation in the STC program by carrying personal radiation detectors (PRD) will reduce the threat of a nuclear or radiological attack in the region.

How can state and local law enforcement agencies get involved in the PRND mission? The DNDO can guide agencies along this path by supplying contacts within other law enforcement agencies currently engaged in this mission. They can also help by offering model procedures and information on training and equipment. Much of this training is free of charge. Providing radiological awareness training alone is useful for both the response and the prevention mission. Recognition of suspicious behavior has previously helped law enforcement officers encounter criminals and terrorists prior to their illegal acts being committed. If one of these officers encountered a potential terrorist possessing radiological or nuclear materials, simply knowing what nuclear shielding and radiological placarding look like could make the difference in recognizing whether the person should be quickly released or be thoroughly investigated. Becoming engaged in this mission at any level is laudable and is the first step to building a comprehensive nationwide architecture that provides defense in depth. It may be our last line of defense to prevent an attack.

Securing the Cities: Personal Radiation Detector User Survey Preliminary Results

he Securing the Cities (STC) program is a federally funded program to increase radiation detection and interdiction capabilities around major high-threat cities in the United States. The New York City region was chosen in 2006 to be the first pilot city for this program. Since that time, tens of millions of federal dollars have been allocated to equip and train first response personnel in portions of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to reduce the threat of a successful attack in this region.

Funding levels and widespread participation in the STC program have made it an incubator for developing the ability to interdict a radiological or nuclear attack. A main component of the STC program has been efforts to deploy thousands of personal radiation detectors (PRD) on properly trained law enforcement officers in these three states. In an effort to obtain feedback from these responders, a PRD User Survey was developed. The survey, conducted by the Institute of Law and Justice on behalf of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, was beta-tested on more than 400 members of the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island, New York, late in 2009. The results from this survey indicate that these officers are engaged in this mission and believe their participation in the STC program will reduce the risk of a radiological attack in the region. This provides proof that, when properly trained and equipped, local law enforcement officers will engage in the preventive radiological/nuclear detection mission. Without this engagement, state and local efforts would be largely ineffective. Some results of this survey are at right.


Unfortunately, no law enforcement agency has all the resources they need or would like to have. There are always shortages of funding, personnel, and equipment with which agency leadership must deal. Most police commissioners or chiefs are appointed and most sheriffs are elected based upon their ability to keep order and peace in their communities. Most are overburdened with managing scarce resources to deal with myriad local problems. Accordingly, agency heads must focus most of their time and energy on these local issues. It is easy for these administrators to overlook the fact that their jurisdictions could potentially be pathways or staging areas for a radiological or nuclear terrorist strike. The preventive radiation and nuclear detection mission may be more esoteric than everyday crime and community issues, but it is vitally important. Local and state law enforcement now has an important role in protecting the United States from this threat. Much like earlier generations who supported international war efforts to safeguard the United States, now state and local law enforcement agencies should support the PRND mission to keep the country safe for themselves, for their families, and for all Americans. This mission is no longer exclusively a federal responsibility. ■

First Responder Radiological Training Summary
ne of the key components to a successful preventive radiological detection program is training. Many sources of training are available to first responders. Much of this training is free of charge, and many of the courses allow agencies to self-deliver training to their members after certain conditions are met. Agencies should ensure that their personnel are properly trained to employ any detection devices that they operate and have a solid foundation in the fundamentals of radiation prior to deploying them. A lack of proper training prior to detection equipment deployment has led to poor results in the past. In one case, a nuclear medicine patient was strip-searched due to a lack of training by officers who were deploying detection equipment.1

Many first responders are familiar with courses offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Preparedness Directorate (NPD).2 One of the training providers for the NPD is the U.S. Department of Energy’s Counter Terrorism Operations Support (CTOS).3 CTOS has been providing radiological/nuclear response training to first responders since 1997 and has more recently added numerous courses to train first responders how to prepare to prevent an attack by utilizing various radiological detection systems. CTOS currently offers the following courses to first responders.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) has also developed numerous training courses for the first responders.4 Numerous other courses are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,5 the Department of Energy,6

the Emergency Management Institute,7 the Federal Environmental Protection Agency,8 the Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center,9 and the Center for Domestic Preparedness.10

Some of these courses can be taken online, some can be delivered at an agency’s training facility, and others require travel to a residential training facility. Most of these courses are free to state and local first responders, including travel and lodging where required.

1Kalyan Kumar Gangopadhyay et al., “Triggering Radiation Alarms after Radioiodine Treatment,” Practice: Lesson of the Week, British Medical Journal 333 (August 2006): 293.
2Please see the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Preparedness Directorate, National Integration Center, National Training and Education Division, Course Catalog at (accessed August 26, 2010).
3“Training Americas First Responders,” Counter Terrorism Operations Support, (accessed August 26, 2010).
“Domestic Nuclear Detection Office: Training,” U.S Department of Homeland Security, (accessed August 26, 2010)
5“Emergency Preparedness and Response: Radiation Emergencies,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (accessed August 26, 2010).
6“TEPP Modular Emergency Response Radiological Transportation Training (MERRTT),” U.S. Department of Energy, August 26, 2010); and “Partnerships for Innovation,” Oak Ridge Associated Universities, August 26, 2010).
7“Welcome,” Emergency Management Institute, (accessed August 26, 2010).
8“Radiation Protection,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (accessed August 26, 2010).
10“Resident Training,” Center for Domestic Preparedness, FEMA, (accessed August 26, 2010).


1The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square Prague, Czech Republic,” press release, April 5, 2010, (accessed August 26, 2010).
2Target Capabilities List: A Companion to the National Preparedness Guidelines, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (September 2007), (accessed August 26, 2010).
3In April 2005, National Security Presidential Directive-43/Homeland Security Presidential Directive-14 established a new national office staffed by personnel from several federal, state, and local agencies. The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) provided a single accountable office with the dedicated responsibility of developing the global nuclear detection architecture and supporting a domestic detection system capable of preventing a radiological or nuclear attack from occurring within the United States. It was recognized that any single strategy could not be one hundred percent effective, so multiple initiatives had to be developed.
“London Police Investigation Timeline,” CBC News Online, updated August 11, 2005, August 26, 2010). 5Graham Allison, nuclear terrorism expert, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Friday, July 16, 2010, (accessed August 26, 2010).

Please cite as:

Stuart K. Cameron, "No Longer a Federal Responsibility: Local Law Enforcement’s Role in Preventing Terrorist Attacks," The Police Chief 77 (October 2010): 96–106, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. 77, no. 10, October 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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