Policing the Modern City: Local Counterterrorism in the United States

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in Counter Terrorism in Diverse Communities, edited by Siddik Ekici. Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2011. Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2011. "Policing the Modern City: Local Counterterrorism in the United States." Pp. 261-267 in Counter Terrorism in Diverse Communities, edited by Siddik Ekici. Amsterdam: IOS Press.


Since the events of 9/11, police organizations have refocused and strengthened their efforts against terrorism. Besides federal/national and international policing practices, reorganizations have also affected local police. This paper focuses on the local police response to terrorism in the United States and suggests important aspects of counterterrorism which local communities that are diverse need to take into account.

Keywords: Police, counterterrorism, local police, United States


The policing of terrorism within many nations does not only involve federal or national agencies as well as international practices and organization of law enforcement, it also includes, in varying degrees, local police institutions. In the United States, in particular, the policing of terrorism primarily involves federal law enforcement agencies, specifically the Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is the lead-agency in counterterrorism, as well as agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, but also local agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels of government.

In this paper, I wish to describe and discuss these local counterterrorism policing practices, which are generally not sufficiently considered, but which fulfill an important role, especially in an era in which local communities are increasingly more diverse [1]. The local role in counterterrorism policing is especially relevant in the United States because U.S. police functions have traditionally developed at the local level because of a historically strong opposition against the centralized policing models that were associated with the European autocratic regimes of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I begin this analysis with a review of relevant developments in New York City in order to reveal the impact of terrorism on policing in the city which was so severely impacted by the events of September 11. Subsequently, I will analyze broader issues and trends in local counterterrorism and indicate important lessons for the role of local policing in matters relating to the fight against terrorism.

1. Counterterrorism Policing in New York City

On September 11, 2001, the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks hit the city of New York like no other place in the American nation. In the immediate response to the attacks, the city’s first responders, especially firefighters and law enforcement officers, were among those who died during the terrorist attacks as they were trying to help others escape the towers [2].

The NYPD had already stepped up its counterterrorism efforts following the attempt to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993. But since September 11, counterterrorism policing has become a very central part of the over-all mission of the NYPD. Since September 11, counterterrorism policing has become a central part of the over-all mission of the NYPD. Areas of New York that are considered particularly vulnerable, such as the financial district, are under constant police surveillance, and additional tactical teams are held ready to be deployed on a need basis. The NYPD is also concerned to visibly deploy surveillance forces across the city, in the form of heavily-armed paramilitary-styled units. Additionally, training programs are organized to teach officers how to use special counterterrorist tactics, to identify the high-risk infrastructure areas of the city, and to understand the nature of the terrorist threat.

After 9/11, the NYPD created a specialized Counterterrorism Bureau and oversees an Intelligence Division. Among its special counterterrorism measures, the NYPD manages the ‘NYPD Shield’ program that is focused on the connection between counterterrorism and private sector security [3]. A private-public partnership established to protect New York City from terrorist attacks, NYPD Shield is meant both for the NYPD to receive information from the private sector and for private sector security to obtain information and cooperation from the police department.

The NYPD also partners with federal and other law enforcement agencies, particularly through a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which enables the exchange of intelligence between the local and federal levels of law enforcement. Through its counterterrorism activities, the NYPD also engages in international cooperation. A number of NYPD liaison officers are permanently stationed abroad, and some NYPD agents have been involved on a temporary basis in various foreign counterterrorism operations. Moreover, the NYPD participates in the electronic communications system by Interpol.

2. Professional Perspectives on Local Counterterrorism

Before taking a look at the reformation of local counterterrorism policing in other local communities across the United States, it will be useful to look at the manner n which police professionals have received the problem of terrorism. Analyzing the relevant literature, three themes have received most attention: a) the localization of terrorism; b) the need for increased inter-agency cooperation; and c) the relevance of intelligence and proactive police methods.

First, in the light of prior terrorist attacks on American soil, including the Oklahoma City Bombing and the attacks of 9/11, law enforcement professionals emphasize the seriousness of terrorism as an issue that can strike anywhere, anytime. The notion that terrorism has come to the United States and that its impact is felt locally, even when the perpetrators originate from abroad, justifies that decisive action has to be taken. It is stressed that the distinct possibility has to be taken into account that terrorist acts can be perpetrated in smaller towns and jurisdictions, especially because the goal of terrorism, to instill fear, can be even more efficiently met by targeting unsuspecting communities.

Second, the most discussed theme among police professionals addressing counterterrorism among local law enforcement is the need to establish and/or expand effective systems of cooperation and inter-agency communication. It is emphasized that police agencies should transcend their traditionally carefully guarded jurisdictional borders and overcome any existing inter-agency rivalries. The responsible officials thus have to unite around a common goal that is based on their shared understanding of the nature of the terrorist threat and the best ways for law enforcement to respond. Such cooperation is favored across the board: among local police agencies, across functionally specialized agencies, such as between police and firefighters, as well as vertically between local agencies and federal law enforcement. Moreover, law enforcement efforts in counterterrorism have to rely on support from the community of citizens and from the political leaders in state and local governments.

Third, law enforcement professionals emphasize intelligence work as among the key functional adjustments of local policing. All law enforcement is based on information about crimes that have been committed or crimes that are likely to be committed. But the role of proactive police methods is different in the case of terrorism because counterterrorism intelligence involves a more routine collection of information, irrespective of whether there is a specific threat or occurrence of a crime. Such intelligence capabilities are typically not well developed among police agencies, especially those at the local level. But because of the devastating impact terrorist attacks may have on a community, a focus towards intelligence-led policing, involving proactive surveillance and inquiries, is emphasized as an important complement to existing reactive measures. Additionally, such intelligence needs to be shared widely in the law enforcement community, both horizontally, among local agencies, and vertically, with relevant federal organizations in the law enforcement and intelligence communities. Gathering intelligence, local law enforcement agencies have the advantage of being in close proximity to their communities, including the neighborhoods where sympathies towards terrorist groups and ideologies are more likely to develop.

3. Trends and Variations in Local U.S. Counterterrorism Policing

The case of New York City might thus lead to conclude that professional theories of counterterrorism policing have been readily implemented by local law enforcement organizations. However, a more complicated picture must be sketched of the local counterterrorism situation in the United States. Based on available scholarly research, indeed, it can be observed that much variation exists in the degree and manner in which local police agencies have responded to the terrorist threat, although there has generally been an increase in counterterrorism activities [4]. During the 1990s, local agencies were generally not prepared to deal with terrorist attacks. But following the events of September 11, local agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels had made several adjustments to bolster terrorism preparedness. Besides a general increase in counterterrorism activities at the local level, however, many variations can be observed depending on the size and scope of the agency (and the jurisdiction) involved.

Generally, the shift towards counterterrorism functions brought about changes in the internal structure of police organizations (specifically the creation of specialized divisions focused on counterterrorism) only in larger cities and at the state level The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), by example, oversees a specialized Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau that focuses on terrorism and other major crimes [5]. In 2006, the LAPD was the first municipal police to establish a so-called Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC), and in March 2008 the LAPD further bolstered its counterterrorism mission through a National Counterterrorism Academy for the training of personnel from local law enforcement agencies [6]. Yet, besides New York and Los Angeles, there are very few local U.S. police forces that have established specialized counterterrorism bureaus of any meaningful significance, with most local police concentrating its counterterrorism role on providing information about terrorism and terrorism preparedness to citizens.

4. Prospects and Problems of Local Counterterrorism Policing

4.1. The Coordination of Hometown Security?

A first issue that deserves discussion based on this review concerns the suggestion, which has often been made in the academic literature, that the general trend towards the adoption of counterterrorism functions among local police can be attributed to a shift towards the strengthening of national security, centrally directed at the level of the executive branch of U.S. government and the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

Indeed, there are indications that there exist pressures to co-opt U.S. local law enforcement into a comprehensive nationwide and centrally guided counterterrorism strategy. Under the banner of the ‘war on terror,’ this coordination of all levels of law enforcement would also involve a centralization and nationalization of local counterterrorism to be in line and aligned with federal efforts. Moreover, policies from the U.S. federal government have also sought to promote the development of counterterrorism functions at the local level. In November 2001, then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft distributed memorandums to all U.S. attorneys in which he argued that procedures for information-sharing and cooperation among local and federal law enforcement agencies should be developed [7]. A program of inter-agency cooperation, the so-called National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, was worked out autonomously by law enforcement executives and intelligence experts at a ‘Criminal Intelligence Sharing Summit’ organized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in the spring of 2002 [8]. The Plan was eventually launched in 2004 [9].

The underlying assumption in the above explanation of the generalized drift towards counterterrorism functions among local police agencies is that law and policy, formulated at the federal level and additionally coordinated through local governments and offices, effectively determines the course and outcome of related police activities. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that this is the case. On the contrary, while the policy and legal frameworks to promote counterterrorism coordination with local law enforcement are meant to apply across the nation, the variation that exists among local counterterrorism policing is not guided by any legal or political considerations. Instead, rather than being justified on the basis of political directives or legally defined frameworks, the policing of terrorism at the local level is based on a professional understanding of the means and goals of counterterrorism.

Thus, most conspicuous among local law enforcement agencies is the emphasis on setting up efficient systems of counterterrorism policing. The formal rationalization of counterterrorism tasks within a broader framework of crime control is observed from the creation of specialized counterterrorism bureaus and the assignment of officers to terrorism-related activities, the emphasis on technological systems of counterterrorism, especially with respect to information exchange, and the increased reliance on cooperation agreements with various levels of law enforcement. The targets of these activities are therefore conceived in terms of terrorism as crime. As a result of this de-politicized understanding, importantly, local police in different towns, cities, and states will implement counterterrorism measures differentially.

4.2. The Localization of Counterterrorism

Research on the variations that exist among local law enforcement agencies in matters of terrorism has identified several aspects of varying local conditions that exist in shaping the law enforcement response. What is particularly noteworthy thereby is that legal and political developments are not mentioned. Instead, distinctly societal factors related to crime and crime control, conceived in professional terms from the viewpoint of law enforcement, are argued to shape counterterrorism policing at the local level.

Revealing the relevance of regional persistence in counterterrorism policing, what matters most to local law enforcement, in particular, are locally distinct conditions of terrorism as a criminal problem. The police agencies of large metropolitan areas are focused on terrorism because the perceived risk level is high. Conversely, police departments in smaller towns and cities will remain primarily focused on crimes other than terrorism because these concerns are more relevant to the security conditions in their respective communities. Therefore, also, the police departments of some of the largest and most globally oriented cities, in the United States as well as in other parts of the world, will engage to a considerable extent in international activities as part of their counterterrorism missions. In the case of the NYPD, international counterterrorism efforts are consequently relatively pronounced because of the international nature of the city of New York and its accompanying terrorism concerns. Conversely, U.S. cities that lack the big-city characteristics of New York may not adopt the counterterrorism principles practiced by the NYPD even though they are confronted with the same political and legal pressures.

Also a function of the relevance of crime conditions rather than political agendas is the fact that crimes other than terrorism remain of much more concern to local police anywhere, even in the case of large metropolitan police departments. From the viewpoint of an efficient management with respect to the central functions of police to control crime and maintain order, it is evident that the counterterrorism functions of local police must be weighed against the local criminal concerns police are more routinely confronted with.

4.3. Resistance as Professionalism

The lack of cooperation in inter-agency arrangements involving local police indicates that variation in counterterrorism activities among local police agencies can also imply resistance against certain efforts. In this respect, a striking event occurred in Portland, Oregon, where the municipal police force in 2005 withdrew from participation in the local JTTF [10]. Among community groups in Portland, concerns had been raised about the overly broad surveillance powers that would be given to local police officers through participation in the FBI-controlled JTTF and the fact that local officials would not be able to oversee the activities of the city police agents cooperating with the FBI. These feelings were amplified after FBI agents arrested seven Muslim-Americans in the Portland area in October 2002 and April 2003 [11]. The arrests, now known as the case of the ‘Portland Seven,’ angered not only Muslim leaders in the local Oregonian community but also fueled anxieties about the potential of counterterrorism police efforts to violate civil rights and rely on racial profiling tactics, as some analysts have argued. In 2005, newly elected mayor Tom Potter led an ultimately successful effort to withdraw the Portland Police Bureau’s participation from the JTTF.

The Portland case indicating local resistance against cooperation with (and controlled by) federal law enforcement is confirmed by experiences with the use of proactive surveillance methods in Dearborn, Michigan [12]. The city of Dearborn has one of the highest concentrations of Arab-Americans in the United States and has therefore been particularly subjected to counterterrorism efforts. In the days following the attacks of 9/11, local police prepared for retaliations against Arab Americans, a problem that plagued many cities in the United States. Soon thereafter, however, federal migration officials began intense surveillance programs, including random interviews, of recently arrived immigrants in the Dearborn area. Local police was generally reluctant to play a part in these efforts and only one Dearborn police officer was assigned to the local JTTF.

The Portland and Dearborn cases show that there can be resistance from within law enforcement to political and legal plans to direct local counterterrorism. In the case of immigration policy, likewise, politically directed plans in some jurisdictions (with large migrant populations) to influence local counterterrorism policing have met with resistance in opposition to the top-down nature of control. The withdrawal of the Portland Police Bureau from the local JTTF is no exception in this case because the actions by mayor Potter (a former Portland police chief) only expressed, at the political level, the professional attitudes that already existed among law enforcement. And as the case of Dearborn showed, local law enforcement will resist cooperation in migration control efforts out of fear for the damage it can bring to their community relations.

The resistance of local law enforcement to cooperate in federally guided counterterrorism efforts can thus be attributed to a general reluctance by police agencies to be dictated by political and legal directives and, additionally, the strong localism that is deeply ingrained in the U.S. system of policing against any intrusion by federal agencies. Whereas the federal level of law enforcement may face pressures only from (federal) law and policy, local police agencies are doubly exposed to pressures from law and policy (at either the federal and/or local level) as well as from federal law enforcement. It is therefore not surprising that complaints are often made against the one-way direction of information flow in cooperation agreements with federal agencies. As the coordination of local law enforcement in counterterrorism cannot be ensured top-down (through legislation, executive action, or federal control), the bureaucratic autonomy of law enforcement necessitates the development of internal policies and agency guidelines. Such agreements would have to be developed on the basis of a condition of equality among the participating agencies if they are to be effective.


The manner in which counterterrorism issues of efficiency, cooperation, and intelligence are articulated in the organization of law enforcement at the local level across the United States varies considerably because of locally specific conditions that are relevant from the viewpoint of a professional understanding of crime, including terrorism, and the control thereof. In large metropolitan areas, such as New York and Los Angeles, counterterrorism policing has since 9/11 been approached in more elaborate ways, although other crimes besides terrorism always remain primary. In the jurisdictions of America’s towns and smaller cities, there is generally a continuation of police practices focused on crimes other than terrorism. Cooperation with federal law enforcement is welcomed at the local level only when such cooperation exemplifies a state of equality among all participating agencies, a condition that is not always met. In some cases, there can even be resistance from local law enforcement against counterterrorism efforts that are led by federal agencies.

What these findings suggest is that counterterrorism is not only multidimensional in being comprised of developments in politics, law, and policing, but also that there are variations in the extent and nature of counterterrorism practices within the police community. These conditions not only differentiate those agencies that are more engaged in counterterrorism from those that are less involved, but also indicate the factions that may exist among police because of regionally varying crime conditions and their relevance for police work. The variations in the local police involvement in counterterrorism work is a manifestation of the regional persistence that exists in police cooperation activities and that is also strongly revealed at the national/federal and international levels of policing.


[1] This paper is revised from Chapter 5 of M. Deflem, The policing of terrorism. New York: Routledge, 2010.
[2] Post-9/11 Report Recommends Police, Fire Response Change, USA Today. [Online] Available from: URL: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002-08-19-nypd-nyfd-report_x.htm [2002, August 19]
[3] See the website of NYPD Shield. [Online] Available from: URL: http://www.nypdshield.org/public/.
[4] See the sources mentioned in Deflem 2010, Chapter 5 [note 1].
[5] Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, Los Angeles Police Department. [Online] Available from: URL: http://www.lapdonline.org/inside_the_lapd/content_basic_view/6502.
[6] Manhattan Institute and LAPD Unveil Counterterrorism Academy for State and Local Cops, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Press Release. [Online] Available from: URL: http://www.manhattan-institute.org/pdf/PressReleaseCPT_03-11-08.pdf [2008, March 10]
[7] Directives from Attorney General Ashcroft’s Speech before EOUSA’s Anti-Terrorism Coordinators Conference. [Online] Available from: URL: http://listserv.buffalo.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A3=ind0111&L=POETICS&E=7bit&P=1018151&B=--&T=text%2Fplain;%20charset=iso-8859-1 [2001. November 13]
[8] National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, Institute for Intergovernmental Research. [Online] Available from: URL: http://www.iir.com/global/ncisp.htm.
[9] Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft, National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan Event, Department of Justice. [Online] Available from: URL: http://justice.gov/archive/ag/speeches/2004/51404aginteliacp.htm [2004, May 14]
[10] See Deflem 2010 [note 1].
[11] ‘Portland Seven’ Terrorism Investigation, Complete Archive from The Oregonian. [Online] Available from: URL: http://www.oregonlive.com/special/terror/index.ssf?/special/terror/pdx_archive.html.
[12] See the sources mentioned in Deflem 2010, Chapter 5 [note 1].

See other writings on the policing of terrorism.