By: Jennifer Szimanski CLEAT Public Affairs Coordinator
On September 5, 2019, Governor Abbott released his executive orders relating to the prevention of mass attacks. I recently worked in a fusion center as a sworn peace officer and was entrenched in the process of networking, gathering, vetting and sharing information in a timely manner. In large part, a fusion center’s mission is exactly what the Governor is attempting to accomplish; halt, derail, intervene in a mass casualty attack.
The first couple of orders relate directly to fusion centers which were created in our country after 9/11. The intent was to create an environment in which local law enforcement agencies could report information to a regional information gathering center. The center would then analyze, vet, and share information with other local, State, and Federal agencies.
The Federal Government created the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI). This is a joint collaborative effort by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement partners. This initiative provides law enforcement with another tool to help prevent terrorism and other related criminal activity by establishing a national capacity for gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing, and sharing SAR information. NSI is responsible for training fusion centers on what constitutes suspicious activity. Local fusion centers are also engaged in training the public and private sector on reporting suspicious activity. There are currently eight recognized fusion centers in the State of Texas.
Several years ago, Texas implemented a SAR reporting database in which law enforcement across the State could enter and search for information. The civilian entry method, iWatch, enables the community to enter and report suspicious activity online. The iWatch plan includes the ability for school administrators and staff to enter tips into the system as well. That information is then gathered by the Texas Fusion Center and initially vetted to determine the validity and seriousness. The Texas fusion center then forwards the information to the local fusion center and/or specific jurisdiction of concern depending on the severity of the tip.
Some of the Fusion Centers across the country, including Austin, staff their center with sworn officers who vet threats and suspicious activity reports in real-time. This initially involves analyzing the information using a myriad of databases and social media or open source techniques, to either add merit to the tip or determine the tip is not credible. If the tip is corroborated with additional information, a sworn officer will notify the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and conduct a knock and talk with the subject of the tip. The process of receiving the tip to a potential interview with the subject is typically quick for intervention or thwarting of an attack to be successful. Mental health professionals who specialize in behavioral threat assessments believe that a knock on the door by a police officer could be an important intervention technique to throw an individual off their plan, show that someone is concerned, scare that subject of the consequences, etc.
Fusion centers nationwide have been working for nearly two decades to share information, connect the dots, and thwart domestic and foreign terrorist attacks. It is impossible to measure the success in numbers, but there are many stories of planned attacks that were unsuccessful due to law enforcement intervention and most of them began with a tip from the community. Fusion center expansion and attention by State and Federal lawmakers is imperative to continue improving the efforts to reduce mass casualty attacks in our country.
The thin blue line proudly stands between the safety of citizens and the chaos of criminals.
Jennifer Szimanski is the CLEAT Public Affairs Coordinator and has been a peace officer in the State of Texas for twelve years. Jennifer holds a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and has been working in law enforcement since 2005.
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