Fusion Centers as Catalysts for Intelligence-led Enforcement: A Passing Moment or the Future of Policing?

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The September 11, 2001 catastrophe in New York City paved the way for one of the largest restructuring efforts of the US government security apparatus in the history of the nation. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), established in 2002, funded and facilitated the creation of so-called fusion centers in states around the nation throughout the early- to mid-2000s. Fusion centers are “a collaborative effort of two or more Federal, State, local, or tribal government agencies that combines resources, expertise, or information with the goal of maximizing the ability of such agencies to detect, prevent, investigate, apprehend, and respond to criminal or terrorist activity” (US Congress, 2007). The DHS initiative to create the fusion centers was driven by the intelligence lapses and gaps in months prior to 9/11. The intelligence failures in the lead up to the attacks were well documented (US Government, 2007). For example, one of the 9/11 hijackers was pulled over for a routine traffic stop on September 9, 2001, however, local law enforcement failed to “connect the dots” on suspicious behavior (Kaplan, 2007). Fusion centers were to plug the information and intelligence-sharing gaps between local, state, and national agencies.

The operative word for fusion centers was coordination. These centers blended intelligence and crime analysis to collate information, foster greater interagency coordination, and to produce intelligence. DHS tasked fusion centers to coordinate “data-sharing among state and local police, domestic and international intelligence agencies, and private companies” (Monahan & Palmer, 2009). Fusion centers, along with the wider post-9/11 reforms, sought to improve the integration of systems and collaboration among agencies, institutions, and local enforcement departments, and in doing so, drastically altered local law enforcement.

DHS investments in technological infrastructure brought new institutional resources to bear on state and local police departments. Intelligence decentralization and data warehouse technologies enmeshed local law enforcement with national and international counterterror efforts. The integration of raw data gleaned from local patrols gained significance and fusion center personnel –in some cases attached to local police departments – processed data to produce intelligence subsequently accessible in national crime databases, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) e-Guardian database.

As of 2012, there were 77 fusion centers, owned and operated by individual states and local entities with support from DHS and other federal partners, scattered throughout the United States with the threefold aims. First, fusion centers gather local information, “aggregate it, analyze it,” then disseminate the findings (Department of Justice (DOJ) 2008). Second, fusion centers similarly assess the local impact of classified or unclassified information from federal partners (DOJ, 2009). Finally, and most importantly, the centers disseminate threat information to relevant state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector entities (DOJ, 2009). Many of the DHS-funded technologies, namely of the aggregate variety in the form of databases or metadata repositories, enabled fusion centers to assemble a “knowledge base for police operations” and to leverage statistical analysis to “map” criminal activity and behaviors (Brodeur & Dupont, 2006). Statistical data empowered local law enforcement agencies to instrumentalize a distinct form of policing which represented a departure from conventions, intelligence-led policing (ILP).

This paper seeks to parse out and explore the implications of intelligence-led policing through two fundamental questions: How have fusion centers – and by extension, intelligence-led policing – affected national security, homeland security, law enforcement, and private intelligence infrastructure? Why are changes needed for their continued efficacy of intelligence-led policing?

Fusion centers represent the institutionalization of domestic intelligence-led policing practice, however, the viability of such an approach - and underpinning philosophy – remain subject to an array of critiques, and therefore fusion centers – and therefore require more clarity in legal mandate and objectives to foster public trust and greater cooperation. First, this paper seeks to first explain the impact of fusion centers – as requisite architecture for intelligence-led policing – on homeland security, national security, law enforcement, and private intelligence structures. Second, this paper engages the critiques of fusion centers, discusses the way forward to gain public trust, and concludes with a series of policy recommendations to improve their efficacy.

Intelligence-led Policing

Intelligence-led policing emerged as the preeminent post-September 11th policing model. McGarrell, Freilich, and Andermak (2007) explain ILP as an “overarching framework that builds on community policing, problem-solving, and partnerships” with a broad all-crimes mandate. Crucially, some analysts claim the separation of terrorism from conventional criminal behavior is counterproductive, in that the two overlap, and thus are inseparable (Simeone, 2008; McGarrell, Freilich & Andermak, 2007). Further, ILP draws upon community policing practices but integrates data analysis as part and parcel to policing. In this sense, policing becomes integrated into the intelligence architecture. First, policing is meant to obtain information and plug it into databases. In turn, this information is processed to intelligence then stored. The addition of several of these data points is meant to foster improved tracking and monitoring. Ultimately, the aim is to leverage this information to inform the identification of patterns and trends, which in turn, improve policing.

Intelligence-led policing (or intelligence-led enforcement) proffers a proactive rather than reactive approach to deter and mitigate terrorist threats (McGarrell, Freilich & Chermak, 2007; Monahan & Palmer, 2009). For McGarrell and his colleagues (2007), ILP leverages all available technological databases and community-oriented resources to facilitate the flow of information to enhance intelligence analysis, and by extension foster more targeted policing and investigations in response to criminal or suspicious activity. ILP is focused on the better collection and use of intelligence for local policing.

Impact of Fusion Centers

Massive institutional and operational reform occurred in the wake of 9/11. A mere eleven days after the catastrophe, the Bush Administration appointed a Director of the Office of Homeland Security. In June 2002, the Administration proposed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and finally, anointed the newest domestic security agency in November 2002 (DHS website). The newly created DHS bore the burden of homeland security. In the complex threat environment of terrorism and natural disasters, the capabilities and funds for DHS merely grew. In 2012, the DHS budget amounted to $57B or roughly 15% of the total federal budget for that year (US Government, 2012).

Fusion centers emerged as domestic bulwarks against the decentralized and networked threat of terrorism in the post-9/11 security infrastructure. As stated, fusion centers were meant to rectify the intelligence lapses noted in the 9/11 Commission Act Report, and thus served to enhance intelligence sharing and foster coordinated enforcement and tracking efforts. Importantly, fusion centers provided new technologies and analytical capabilities to local police departments, and these capabilities are a requisite for ILP. Data analysis enables local departments to identify potential threats and better contextualize suspicious activity and criminal behaviors due to the greater availability of resources. Statistical capabilities may be augmented by subject matter expertise of personnel in fusion centers, and the intelligence produced therein would be made available to local police for ILP.

Intelligence-led enforcement served as the key element to the introduction of fusion centers. The introduction of intelligence-led policing enabled local departments to draw upon the data analysis capacities of fusion centers and the information relevant to contextualize individual data points as patterns in regional, national, or international actors or activities. Similarly, fusion centers cultivated relationships between federal, state, and local agencies and empowered local departments to draw upon the wealth of resources available to federal agencies (Lambert, 2010). This diffusion of information and resources bolsters capabilities and renders greater cooperation between very separate local, state, regional, and national scales (Lambert, 2010). Most of all, however, such systems mitigate intelligence gaps or blind spots.

Impact of ILP on Homeland Security

The proliferation of intelligence-led policing with greater accessibility to intelligence changed the nature of homeland security. Transmission of intelligence went two ways. On the one hand, individual “beat” police were folded into the homeland security apparatus and contributed information on local developments, which may or may not supplement state or national agency efforts. Such contributions by local police had the potential to serve as critical data points for regional, national, or international agencies in the search to identify and analyze patterns and trends in criminal or terrorist activity. On the other hand, federal information and databases provided the resources for local police to place the significance of individual criminal activity or behavior within a broader context. Fusion centers fostered the institutional framework to facilitate the flow of information between the local and national scales. Moreover, the data analysis function crucial to the ILP model was provided by fusion centers and the expertise embedded within local or state police departments. In other words, the ILP provided local law enforcement and national agencies with the means to separate the proverbial needles from the haystack.

Homeland security was no longer disconnected from local police efforts. ILP processes integrated local and national efforts and, in turn, eliminated the recalcitrant “walls” to which the 9/11 Commission Report alluded. While homeland security was still managed by DHS, a federal agency, local police became key circuits in the process. But this integration and closer cooperation prompted fundamental questions not merely on the efficacy of ILP.

At the core, the integration of local police departments into state and national agencies beg questions on the viability of such an approach. The extent to which closer cooperation creates issues remains a subject of inquiry. First, Matthew C. Waxman (2010) notes the greater integration of officers and personnel from disparate agencies and departments with very different standards and expertise renders challenges. Thus, one fundamental challenge lies in the standardization of definitions, practices, and systems. Waxman similarly claims the integration could prompt questions on local police autonomy, and therefore the question of whether national efforts should trump local police efforts remains a poignant concern. Put another way, what command structures, and how does that affect local policing? No doubt, the closer cooperation between local authorities and national agencies demands further inquiry to flesh out the organizational and jurisdictional issues to arise from the cooperation.

Impact of ILP on National Security

At the most basic level, intelligence produced by fusion centers or obtained at the local level contributes to the national security objectives. Given the contending jurisdictions and mandates, and the fluidity with which individuals move, the need for intelligence sharing and cooperation remains critical. And ILP contributes to the national security objectives through better engagement with local populations. For instance, familiar “beat” police in the areas of Minneapolis with a heavy Somali population would likely serve as trusted and respected interlocutors for residents to express concerns of a member of their community. In turn, this information could be leveraged for investigations into other Somali-Americans who may have embarked on a similar trajectory. Rather than send in an undercover operative or FBI officers to the doors of the Minneapolis community, the local police could input and pass along this information. This represents a form of burden-shifting from federal level agencies to the local departments, but this relates to the question of which – the local police or federal-level agents – would be best placed to gain the confidence of local communities. Of course, the FBI would have the expertise and knowledge of the community, but the local department would have the personal relationships from routine policing.

With ILP, national security agencies are now better able to better leverage the intelligence and resources of local information. No doubt, this provides a more holistic view of national or international trends and patterns in behavior, both of citizens and persons of interest. Of course, the increased flow of information improves the national security agencies’ capacity to focus local efforts and to triangulate such efforts to national and international issues.

Impact of ILP on Local Enforcement

ILP drastically changed the way local law enforcement operates, the systems with which intelligence draws upon, and arguably the philosophical approach to crime. First, as shown above, local law enforcement strategies were altered with the proliferation of data analysis technologies. Statistical analysis of data points empowers local police but also enables them to call upon fusion centers or federal expertise. Second, police departments become both more adaptable to trends and perceptive to patterns in criminal and suspicious behavior.

ILP also altered the organizational structure of local police departments. Organizationally, ILP drove the coupling of crime analysis and intelligence (Ratcliffe, 2003). Traditionally, these two functions were very separate, however, intelligence-led policing fostered their integration and improved utility toward policing rather than exclusively for investigations.

Impact on Public-Private Partnerships

Many argue an improved public-private partnership through ILP is one of the most significant results of this model. Matthew Simeone estimates the private security personnel in the US amounts to around two million, whereas the uniformed law enforcement officers amount to 800,000 (Simeone, 2008). Such figures demand a more robust relationship between the public and private sectors, and he claims the relationship could be fostered to expand the intelligence network customers and the scope of the information in the network (Simeone, 2008). For Simeone, web-based materials, such as email, websites, and web-forums serve as the most ideal forum for local authorities to leverage private partnerships, but there are several alternatives.

The rich tapestry of community organizations and private businesses offer significant entry points for ILP officers. Community groups may offer insights into the motives and drivers for suspicious behavior. For instance, a community group would be best placed to identify erratic behavior or the evolution of ideology. And thus high contact between the community organizations and the local police implementing ILP may provide clues into the radicalization of individuals, and enable the local police to interrogate the individual suspected of erratic behavior prior to engaging in risky behavior or criminal acts. Therefore, the high contact between local police and community organizations provide a system through which to engage. At the same time, data analysis on the radicalization of individuals may shed light on larger community trends or trends in other similar communities. Therefore, the local data remains crucial, but just as crucially, aggregated and collated data remains essential for the contextualization of threats and opportunities.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The post-9/11 domestic security architecture has proven crucial to the maintenance of and overcoming the challenging issues of homeland security, however, very high profile critiques of the systems and processes require clarification to build public trust. Public trust is the very foundation upon which ILP rests, given the public must trust law enforcement officers and officials. In the absence of public trust, information will be that much more difficult to obtain by local officers and, in turn, intelligence will be that much more difficult to produce. It goes without saying, then, more needs to be done to build public trust, particularly in the wake missteps. Therefore, this piece closes with two recommendations to both build public trust and to foster effective ILP implementation: public outreach and standardization of processes. These two crucial initiatives are essential to the continued viability of ILP in light of critiques.

Fusion centers – and the systems they enable, ILP – remain contentious topics. Public backlash by civil libertarians and others remains inevitable, but in order for the systems and processes to render results, there needs to be stronger communication between citizens and law enforcement and citizens and government. Federal officials should do all they can to clarify and assure the public on the need for ILP, the value, and the mandate. The failure to adequately communicate these defangs local law enforcement efforts and complicates efforts to procure the information so essential to the successful implementation of ILP. Therefore, there needs to be increased engagement through public outreach.

Public officials should embark on robust outreach efforts to build public trust. This could be achieved at the national level and at the local levels. Federal officials should engage the public in a discussion on the importance and value of ILP through speeches and direct engagement. More crucially, though, local law enforcement officers are best positioned to serve as ambassadors of ILP and the importance of their efforts to the community. Therefore, DHS should fund local community engagement programs with local officers visiting schools, community centers, or public events. The results would be stronger public trust and more effective ILP implementation.

Second, as stated above, one of the core issues in ILP, fusion centers, and wider proactive policing is standardization within and across local departments. More federal efforts need to be invested in the standardization programs. Thus, DHS should leverage funds for mass training of local law enforcement officers and those stationed at fusion centers. This training would provide best practices of ILP and shed light on the range of data analysis capabilities at fusion centers. Furthermore, a massive training initiative could also clarify both the importance of ILP and offer opportunities for officers to share experiences. The fundamental aim of such training would be to standardize expectations, processes, and foster better communication between local, state, regional, and federal officials. Most of all, this training effort would provide frontline officers with the tools to effectively execute their mandate.

ILP and fusion centers are in the public balance. Both have changed the very nature of policing and the scope of homeland security and national security. Yet both remain in the public balance, and therefore their utility and value should be demonstrated to both the public and the employees tasked with working the frontlines. Their very viability is contingent upon the trust of the public and local police officers.


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