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Back to Archives | Back to November 2005 Contents 

What Chiefs Need to Know About Port Security

Betty P. Kelepecz, Chief of Police (Retired), San Diego Harbor Police Department, and Senior Vice President, Integrated Law Enforcement and Maritime Security Solutions, Crossflo Systems Inc.





















ort security used to be a topic of little interest to any agency not involved with or adjacent to a port. Specialized port policing agencies throughout the country traditionally had little contact or relationship with local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies throughout the rest of the country. In the typical port environment, port police agencies tended to operate independently and almost alone.

Recently, terrorism concerns have brought port security, or the lack thereof, to the attention of the mainstream media. Events of October 12, 2000, underscored U.S. vulnerability when an international waterborne terrorist attack on the destroyer U.S.S. Cole killed 17 American sailors and injured 39 others in the Port of Aden, Yemen. Suddenly the potential for a similar in-country attack or the smuggling of terrorist devices, persons, or contraband in a waterborne cargo vessel into a port or on an inland water highway became very real. U.S. citizens now understand that an attack on a port, regardless of its strategic importance or use, can have devastating implications for them.

Beyond the obvious threat of terrorism to life and limb, one of the world's leading authorities on port and maritime security, Dr. Stephen Flynn, weighs in with the following chilling assessment in a brief paper prepared especially for this article:




The next catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States may well be within or via one of our seaports. The attacks of September 11 involved domestic airliners. The Madrid attacks on March 11, 2004, and the London attacks in July 2005 targeted mass transit. On October 6, 2002, a small boat loaded with explosives rammed into the French oil tanker Limburg as it headed into a Yemeni port. The blast ripped through the two-year-old tanker's double hull, killing a crewmember and spilling 90,000 barrels of burning crude oil into the Gulf of Aden. Based on this track record, it is appropriate to conclude that al Qaeda and its imitator organizations view transportation systems as attractive targets.

Those charged with protecting America's waterfront should find particularly worrisome a barely reported terrorist attack that took place just three days after the Madrid train bombings. On March 14, 2004, there were two suicide bomb explosions in the Israeli port of Ashdod. The bombers breached port security by hiding in an empty container with a false wall; the container had entered the port from Gaza. Fortunately, they were intercepted before they could reach the storage facilities that held hazardous and flammable materials. Ten people were killed including the bombers, and 15 were injured.

U.S. ports, particularly our largest commercial seaports, make attractive targets because they satisfy the classic criteria of motive and opportunity. Most of our major urban centers, including heartland cities like Memphis and Chicago, sprang up from the American wilderness because they provided easy access to navigable waterways or to the sea.

Today, we remain largely an island nation, dependent on waterways to move over 90 percent of all trade by volume. These goods include vast energy resources that are refined into fuels that we rapidly consume in facilities located in ports. Chemical plants import hazardous substances that they process into industrial products used throughout our economy. More than 9 million containers arrived in U.S. ports in 2004, carrying up to 32 tons of materials in each one. These boxes that are quickly transported to trucks and trains and find their way to every corner of the country support our just-in-time manufacturing and retail sectors.

Despite our enormous dependency on ports, most remain very soft targets. Before September 11, 2001, they simply were not security priorities at the local, state, or federal levels. Few possessed the means to deter amateur thieves and thugs, never mind determined terrorists. Most ports are just at the earliest stages of putting in the kinds of protective measures these critical assets require. This translates into vulnerable ports where the consequences of a future attack would extend far beyond the confines of the city or state that bears most of the responsibility for safeguarding it.

A radiation dispersal device, or dirty bomb, set off in a container while it is in a marine terminal. An explosive-laden small boat launched at the side of a moored cruise ship or an inbound oil tanker. These scenarios would produce much more than loss of life and destruction of property.

Should a dirty bomb go off in a box, it would almost certainly produce a shutdown of all the container terminals in that port, and, given the uncertainty surrounding possible follow-on attacks, lead to the closure of other seaports as well. Just a few days of a national port shutdown to conduct an investigation would be an economic disaster. Just-in-time supply chains would collapse, retailer shelves would go bare, and manufacturing plants would be idled. The losses to our economy could quickly mount into the tens of billions of dollars.

The destruction of a tanker in a harbor could create an environmental catastrophe on the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in 1989. Should the ship sink and obstruct a navigable channel, petroleum refineries would have to cease operations, which would translate into gas pumps going dry in the surrounding region within days. Finally, a successful attack on a cruise ship could dry up the $26 billion cruise industry virtually over night, as jittery passengers would abandon their vacation plans.

In short, the stakes associated with protecting our seaports are enormous. Since we are living on borrowed time before terrorists strike again on American soil, we need to treat the port security agenda with a far greater sense of urgency than we have demonstrated to date.1




Knowledge of the port security issue can enhance the police executive's ability to respond to a community's concerns, reduce a threat through innovative, collaborative, and preventative efforts, and generally improve the overall homeland security. To this vital end, maritime port security, operational structures, regulation, challenges, and solutions will be highlighted in this article.

Port Classifications
Ports can be classified in several ways. In the United States, ports usually fall into one of the following categories based on the major business performed or facilities available in the port: strategic seaport, commercial or cargo port, recreation port, and ferry or cruise port. Port classification helps identify the particular vulnerabilities associated with a port.

Commercial or Cargo Port: A commercial or cargo port encourages and supports the transportation of commodities into and out of the port. Predominant commodities are containerized cargo, break-bulk, neo-bulk, dry bulk, and liquid bulk. Containerized cargo is typically described in industry standard format by 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. For example, a 40-foot container is equal to two TEUs. Other commodities, such as automobiles (neo-bulk), are often reported in units equivalent to approximately 2,000 pounds, or approximately one-short ton per auto. While there are several vulnerabilities associated with a cargo port, one of the most concerning is the potential for transporting terrorists and terrorist bombs within cargo containers into and throughout the country and the devastating economic impact should a cargo terminal be shut down.

Strategic Seaports: These are maritime installations designated to be able to accommodate U.S. Department of Defense cargo shipments to support contingencies and, usually to house strategic Department of Defense facilities and operations. The selection of a commercial seaport as a strategic seaport is based on the types of facilities in the region, the port's capabilities related to military requirements, and accessibility by road and rail. A major vulnerability of concern in a strategic port is the potential for a small vessel attack on a military vessel or facility and the associated chaos as a result of the incapacitation of a strategic port or a branch of the military.

Recreational Port: A recreational port is a port that provides harbor, marinas, facilities, and businesses that encourage and support recreational vessel and commercial fishing use. A primary vulnerability in a recreational port includes the use of a small recreational vessel to launch an attack or smuggle terrorists and the contraband used to support terrorist operations.

Cruise and Ferry Port: A cruise or ferry port is one that supports the cruise or ferry industry. While ferry ports may also ferry cargo, the cruise industry is predominantly for passenger recreational cruising. A major vulnerability of a cruise or ferry terminal is the potential bombing of a cruise ship or ferry, the potential loss of many lives, and the impact on the economy and the travel industry.

More than one or all of the above port classifications may be represented in a single port. The size of the port, the shape and the depth of the harbor, the intermodal transportation system, and location will determine a port's category classification.

Port Law Enforcement Structures
To the visitor to a port or waterway, it may seem as if there is always someone on the water, on the land, and on the piers and docks who is responsible for enforcing the municipal, state, federal, and other codes. But enforcement of ports can be a morass of entities, agencies, and jurisdictions. Although some ports include a primary agency for local and state enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard for federal jurisdiction, the overlap of authorities in a port community can be extremely complex. Therefore, the coordination of the various law enforcement relationships can be a significant contributory factor in determining the difference between a safe port and a vulnerable one.

It is helpful to law enforcement executives of any agency to understand the basic jurisdictional authorities within a port. The various types of law enforcement structures generally depend on the legal authority for the port, which can be a municipality, a state, or a navigation district. There are several basic law enforcement structures used to police ports:

  • Municipal or state port authority policed by municipal or county law enforcement agency

  • Port authority policed by a port authority police agency

  • Port authority contracted with a law enforcement agency

  • Port authority with port or contracted security guards and enhanced with local law enforcement support

A port authority, often called a port district, is a state or municipal government agency that also focuses on profit-making enterprises. Because of the specialized role assigned them by state or municipal statute (that is, a tidelands trust), port authorities also operate much like businesses, negotiating economic development projects, leasing land, buildings, and equipment, and promoting their facilities and districts for potential economic growth and opportunities. A port authority may also be responsible for the operations of airports, bridges, and public marine facilities and the development of industrial parks. By their very nature, port authorities will be intimately involved in protecting the natural resources of the port and helping to maintain the health of the environment.

In order to ensure the ability to control and police the port for which it has responsibility, a port district or authority most often has the authority to enact municipal or municipal type codes and direct enforcement of those codes. In some cases (such as New York/New Jersey, San Diego, and Seattle) the port authority establishes its own law enforcement agency that has full peace officer arrest powers to enforce the law. These agencies are often referred to as port or harbor police departments. In many cases, the port authority will contract with the municipality or county in which the port is located to provide law enforcement services on the water, the tidelands and on non-tax-paying properties (parks and piers).

In other situations, the municipality or county itself is the authority for the port and therefore will deploy its own law enforcement resources. And in yet other cases, the primary security for the port and its entities will be provided by port or contract security guards, with the law enforcement functions being carried out by a local law enforcement agency.

Port Regulation
Ports and waterways are regulated by a number of local, state, and federal agencies. The primary agency responsible for overall national maritime and port security is the U.S. Coast Guard, formerly within the Department of Transportation but now part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It is the lead federal agency for maritime homeland security and its mission is to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic interests in the nation's ports and waterways, along the coast, on international waters, or in any maritime region as required to support national security. Today, maritime homeland security represents about 25 percent of the U. S. Coast Guard's mission.

The specific statutory authority for the U.S. Coast Guard's law enforcement mission is given in 14 U.S.C. 2: "The Coast Guard shall enforce or assist in the enforcement of all applicable laws on, under, and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States."In addition, 14 U.S.C. 89 provides the authority for U.S. Coast Guard's active duty commissioned, warrant, and petty officers to enforce applicable U.S. law. It authorizes Coast Guard personnel to enforce federal law on vessels subject to U.S. jurisdiction including U.S., foreign, and stateless vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard regulates maritime cargo, recreational, cruise, and transportation entities through the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) much as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulates airports and air carriers through the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA).

Consequently, any law enforcement agency in a port environment shares jurisdiction with the U.S. Coast Guard and must follow its mandates. Although some believe that the U.S. Navy shares federal law enforcement jurisdiction in a strategic port, the U.S. Navy is not a law enforcement agency. The U.S. Navy has only military jurisdiction on its bases and around its vessels. However, other federal entities enforce federal laws in port environments, such as the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the primary federal regulator is the U.S. Coast Guard.

Maritime Transportation Security Act
The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 (MTSA), signed on November 25, 2002, is designed to protect the nation's ports and waterways from a terrorist attack. This law is the U.S. equivalent of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) and was fully implemented on July 1, 2004. It requires vessels and port facilities to conduct vulnerability assessments and develop security plans that may include establishing passenger, vehicle, and baggage screening procedures, security patrols, restricted areas, personnel identification procedures, access control measures, and surveillance. The MTSA security regulations were developed using risk-based methodology and focus on those sectors of maritime industry possessing a higher risk of a transportation security incident. Vehicles covered under these regulations include various tank vessels, barges, large passenger vessels, cargo vessels, towing vessels, offshore oil and gas platforms, and port facilities handling certain kinds of dangerous cargo or servicing the vessels listed above.

MTSA also requires the establishment of committees in all the nation's ports to coordinate the activities of all port stakeholders, including other federal, local, and state agencies, industry, and the boating public. These groups, called area maritime security committees, are tasked with collaborating on plans to secure their ports so that their resources can be best used to deter, prevent, and respond to terrorism.

Port Security Challenges
U.S. ports have traditionally possessed limited control and security. In the past, recreational vessels could come and go without much interference or scrutiny. The primary law enforcement concern relating to cargo vessels used to be the transportation of stolen automobiles out of U.S. ports and the smuggling of narcotics into those ports. The emphasis for cargo security has now shifted to the smuggling of weapons, potential terrorists, and contraband into the ports in support of terrorist activities. With this change in focus, new methods to ensure security have become necessary. Where docks and vessels were once accessible to the general public, today fences, security gates, and increased security personnel restrict that access. In the sport fishing industry, where the captain of the vessel was simply another participant, vessel captains are now required to regulate and maintain records of passengers by checking identification, ensuring dock and vessel security, and reporting any suspicious activity to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Similarly, the cargo shipping industry must now screen more cargo and baggage for contraband, weapons, and radioactivity. Although all the increased regulations and security certainly tends to prevent and deter a waterborne attack, it also places a tremendous financial burden on entities and businesses responsible for these security enhancements. Additional challenges in the port security environment include identifying funding to implement security solutions, ensuring that port security solutions meet the requirements of the MTSA Facility Security Plans, maintaining full interoperability (communications, information sharing) with other maritime partners, sharing information with law enforcement as well as non-law enforcement maritime partners, implementing effective access controls, and identifying resources necessary to secure each particular port.

Overcoming Port Security Challenges
A number of ports have confronted security challenges and overcome them with innovative and collaborative solutions. In some cases, ports have identified a person in the port organization to be responsible for coordinating port security initiatives whereas other ports have designated their police agency as the port entity responsible for initiating and maintaining port security initiatives. Ports have also been hiring security integrators to assist them in this seemingly insurmountable task.

As previously noted, the MTSA requires that each U.S. Coast Guard sector develop area maritime security committees to enhance maritime domain awareness (MDA) and develop strong partnerships in order to better secure our nation's ports. One of the interesting opportunities now arising from these partnerships is that law enforcement and non-law enforcement partners possess critical information that can provide a more robust MDA for deterrence, prevention, and response. But the power of information can be realized only if it is rapidly and consistently shared and analyzed amongst the proper authorities. Because a variety of law enforcement, intelligence, and security agencies operate in most ports, critical information about port activities and surveillance resides in a variety of databases at each port.

To improve and increase MDA and improve response, the U.S. Coast Guard has mandated the development of joint harbor operation centers (known as Sector Command Centers-Joint) throughout the country. The centers are designed to leverage and integrate technologies and resources of the various local, state, and federal entities to achieve greater MDA. The model San Diego Sector Command Center-Joint will soon be brought to a fully operational state at the U.S. Coast Guard facility and will incorporate the San Diego Harbor Police dispatch center and personnel. Thus, all harbor police emergency and nonemergency calls for service will be dispatched from this Coast Guard station thereby ensuring full MDA and appropriate response from the nearest maritime security resource.

Also, San Diego's MDA efforts are being augmented by analyzing data from law enforcement as well as non-law enforcement sources to determine incident indicators. In 2004 the San Diego Harbor Police Department worked with a local technology company to develop a means of accessing local as well as regional disparate maritime affiliated databases including the San Diego Port District's Marine Operations Information System (MOIS). The MOIS is not a traditional law enforcement database but contains billing, invoicing, and logistical information necessary to run San Diego's cargo terminals. Therefore, data such as each vessel's port of departure and cargo manifest reside in the MOIS. Analyzing this data along with other information available in the port environment provides a much better maritime picture for prevention, deterrence, and response.

An added benefit of this data sharing initiative is the ability to share this incident indicator data with other law enforcement agencies while conforming to the recently federally adopted Global Justice XML Data Model. Since the original project was initiated in the San Diego port, the Los Angeles Port Police also has begun to share information with the San Diego Harbor Police to connect ports and share incident indicator information. This collaborative effort, named the Regional Information Sharing and Analysis (RISA) initiative, represents one of the earliest evidences of successful government agencies sharing data to protect that most vulnerable of all assets-our nation's ports.

Although in the past ports have warranted or required limited security, they have now been identified as potential targets requiring much greater security measures, specifically those mandated by the MTSA. In the very recent past, ports and other transportation industries have become real targets of terrorist activities. Although the U.S. Coast Guard is the primary federal law enforcement authority and port police agencies tend to be the primary local law enforcement entity within ports, since ports tend to be the front door to the nation's communities, knowledge of port security better prepares all law enforcement executives to respond to the implications of port-related terrorist attacks. ■

1Dr. Stephen Flynn, commander, U.S. Coast Guard (retired), and senior fellow for national security studies, Council on Foreign Relations, "Ports in the Crosshairs"(August 2005).

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From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 11, November 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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