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Friday, July 19, 2024

PERSPECTIVE: Use Data to Build a Community Defense Against Crime Rings, Future Attacks

As a former operations commander for the Maryland State Police Criminal Intelligence Division post-9/11, I came to understand the importance of the collection and the analysis of criminal intelligence gathered through covert operations, open source, and the collection of data generated from the analysis of investigative and traffic reports submitted by troopers from across the state of Maryland. I had a fantastic team of highly motivated professional civilian analysts who applied their expertise to their assigned tasks and subject matter. They were able to generate a multitude of highly interesting materiel and facts that often made the eyebrows of us old cops rise with a collective “I’ll be damned.” We became extremely adept at creating amazingly beautiful flow charts, graphs, and talking points for anybody we could find interested in any of the topics. However, there needs to be more use for the material than just being impressed.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks caught the Maryland State Police completely by surprise as much as the rest of law enforcement and the country. Sure, we all talked about the possibility and the likelihood that this country would become the target of a massive terrorist strike. We had the Oklahoma City bombing, we had the first attack on the World Trade Center, but all of us, including the public, looked at those events as some sort of anomaly as opposed to a hint of things to come. We all felt somehow insulated from the frequent terrorist attacks that were happening everywhere else in the world. Our collective arrogance or naivety would not let us look at reality in the face. All of us watched attacks on the various news channels from afar. That stuff just does not happen here. The signs and indications – intelligence – was there. It was staring us all right in the face.

As in the aftermath of every terrorist attack or horrific mass shooting – which we do everything we can to avoid labeling as terrorist attacks, but are often acts of either international terrorism or domestic terrorism – all of us, both within the media and within law enforcement, play Monday morning quarterback. We can all point to the signs and ask the very pertinent question. How did we miss this, how did we not know something like this was coming? The red flags were there.  They were all taking flying lessons but did not seem to be concerned about learning to land. All of them were on various watch lists for a multitude of reasons. The World Trade Center had already been the target of a failed attempt to bring it down, and it has always been known that the radical fundamentalists responsible never give up trying to fulfill their mission easily.

The everyday road trooper, deputy, officer, patrolman did not have access to any of these lists and had no way of knowing that any of the perpetrators who hijacked and flew the planes were on them. If the patrol officer and street cops are truly the backbone of American law enforcement, then they need to have access to information that may contribute to their ability to not only locate potential terrorists but be able to disrupt their plans. None of us who ever patrolled the streets will ever know what we may have stopped or disrupted because of our presence while on patrol or a traffic stop that we conducted. But that is the nature of the business.

It’s not good enough to be satisfied with nice slogans we all hear put out to the public. “If you see something, say something.” My questions are basic: See what? What should I be looking for? And what should I say? And to whom should I say it? Law enforcement has an obligation to reach out and educate the citizens we are all trying to protect. The father of modern law enforcement, Sir Robert Peel 1788-1850, British Conservative statesman, said, “The police are the public. The police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time and attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.” The public obviously has many more sets of eyes than the police can ever have, and we must educate the public and partner with them in protecting our communities and our great country.

As 9/11 fades into the past, history has shown that there were agencies at all levels that had the intelligence and either did not put it all together or kept it so close to the vest that the intelligence was useless. That brings me to my point and the crux of this article. Have the lessons we learned as the result of the pain and suffering of 9/11 faded into our collective memory just like the event itself? If those lessons have faded and we did not learn anything, then we have all failed. Law enforcement cannot possibly be omnipresent to protect this country from every desperate act of terrorism or horrific act. We must have the buy-in and the participation of the business community and every citizen to have any chance of stopping these violent acts.

Intelligence and analytics, which go hand in hand, can be a powerful tool in law enforcement’s tool box if we learn how to use it. We generated a variety of statistics, then compared them to years past or used them to project what may be coming. This was particularly useful in traffic enforcement with the oldest stat used by law enforcement: the traffic fatality rate. I am now 60 years old with my active sworn law enforcement career in my rearview mirror. However, when I was still just a teenager, I can remember traffic fatality rates being posted on signs along Pennsylvania’s interstate highways and turnpike. It was discussed in newspaper articles and on the broadcast news. The obvious connection between drunk driving and the traffic fatality rate was made.

These statistics were used to try to educate the motoring public about the dangers of drunk driving and were used by law enforcement to go back to their legislative bodies seeking money and additional human resources to get drunk drivers off the highways. These numbers were not only tracked but were used by both the police to obtain the resources that were needed and to educate the general public about the dangers of drunk and now drugged driving. That analysis and fatality-related statistics are still used today along with a real concerted effort to educate our citizens.

There is a real likelihood that if a drunk driver is not spotted by a police officer on patrol, a citizen will pick up a cell phone and report the driver, frequently staying on the phone while patrol cars are directed to the offender’s location. That success is the result of a concerted effort by law enforcement working with citizens through education and enforcement to tackle the problem. Will it eliminate the problem? No, but it makes it much more likely that the drunk driver will be caught and arrested. That same mentality must be used to help prevent the next terrorist attack – or at least make it much more likely that the terrorists will be stopped before they are able to act.

Therefore, analytics and intelligence analysis are not something new. It has been used for decades. But the question is, are we using it to its full potential? I believe since Sept. 11, law enforcement has gotten much better at using data analysis and developed criminal intelligence, but we are still a long way from taking advantage of what this tool has to offer.

In addition, with the passage of time, our collective comfort level has increased to pre-9/11 levels and we must make a concerted effort to stay sharp in the law enforcement community and keep the public informed. It is also just as important, if not more important, to keep the public, the eyes and ears of law enforcement, engaged with law enforcement to help prevent the next attack.

Data analysis can be extremely useful in both strategic planning and resource allocation – provided the agency is collecting the proper data, which is another issue that goes into the thought process. Every agency from the largest federal agencies to the smallest-town police department should be collecting data. If the proper things are being tracked, it can tell the agency over the long term where they have been and where they need to go. It is very difficult to solve a problem if you do not know what the problem is. Data collection such as crime statistics can help every agency better understand the communities they serve and their needs and problem areas.

It can also be used and should be used as a report card for every law enforcement agency to evaluate programs and the use of limited and precious resources. They can be used to help determine if desired goals are being met and help pinpoint changes or minor adjustments that need to be made to make them more successful. Coming from a state agency with limited resources, we needed to stretch our dollars as far as we could in order to get the most bang for the buck.

Once a problem is clearly identified, such as an increase in burglaries or violent crimes, the numbers can be taken to those responsible for budget allocation to demonstrate that there is a problem and there is a clear need for additional resources, manpower, equipment, or both to address this growing need. It is no longer going to work for a chief of police to go to the town council – or, in the case of state agencies, the state legislature and say, “I need 40 more troopers because I need them to solve a growing crime problem or a growing traffic management problem.”

The chief needs to be able to pull out the current numbers and data along with previous years and show the budget decision-makers the facts and prove that there is a serious problem that needs resources and attention, and here are the numbers and projections based upon reports taken and data analysis to prove it. Also based upon that analysis here is the plan moving forward – how will resources be used to tackle the problem head-on? Saying “I need additional resources just because I say we need them” no longer cuts it. Having the facts and figures to prove the need will be much harder for those holding the purse strings to ignore.

Collecting the data and the statistics is only a part of a good law enforcement intelligence unit. We must be able to not only use the data collected from the analysis of police reports, open-source intelligence, and intelligence generated from the proverbial boots on the ground to capture that eye-opening “Well, I’ll be damned” moment to usable and actionable intelligence.

Post-9/11, newly promoted to intelligence operations commander, and armed with a mandate to get the Maryland State Police back in the game, so to speak, I remember sitting in meetings and hearing from all of those extremely talented and dedicated civilian analysts. They would show me charts, graphs, and reports generated through their hard work all marked confidential, Maryland State Police eyes-only.

I remarked one day to the group, “This is all great stuff. This is all great work, but what good is it if we can’t get this information out to those that need it? I don’t want to sit here and have to tell anybody, ‘Wow, we knew that was going to happen; we just could not tell you.’” Compartmentalization can be a real problem.

Intelligence derived through analysis and generated through other means is useless unless it is used to prevent the act from ever happening in the first place. For obvious reasons, certain facts and intelligence must be held very close to the vest if there is a very good reason to do so such as an ongoing sensitive investigation that would be severely damaged or would cause panic and mayhem if divulged at the wrong time. However, there is plenty of intelligence that is best shared not only within law enforcement but also with our local business community and the citizens we are all sworn to protect and serve.

Specific intelligence that if leaked or made public would severely damage an ongoing criminal investigation obviously needs to be held close to the vest. However, it becomes very easy for agencies to hold everything close to the vest and thus render this valuable information relatively useless. It has been my experience that happens frequently, and it takes effort to take the time to truly evaluate what needs to be kept close and what can be shared in a useful intelligent way.

It all must start with communication: communication that goes from the public to the police and the police back to the public. The police also must listen to the public, both the business community and the general citizens we are tasked to serve. There is a big difference in hearing what the citizens have to say and report and actually listening. The information must then be broken down for proper evaluation and importance. It takes time, energy, commitment and, most importantly, empathy. If law enforcement cannot, or is unwilling to, walk in the shoes of the people, then the mission to serve and to protect is lost before it ever has a chance to succeed.

So how do we do this? The first order of business is to not overlook anything. As a very young trooper, I once had a very wise and seasoned sergeant who schooled me after I complained about having to take a report for a minor theft of wheels stolen from a push mower that had been left in the front yard of a home. I thought it was a complete waste of my time and State Police resources to make me take a theft report for something of little or no value. He told me, “If the citizen, whom we work for, thought it was important enough for him to call the State Police to report this theft, then it is important enough for us to take a report and do what we can.” After giving it some thought, he was correct. As I advanced in my career and became that wise old sergeant, then commander, I used to explain it this way to young troopers. If you treat every crime like the victim was your mother and you have given your report and investigation the effort you would if the victim was a loved one, then you have done your job the way it is supposed to be done.

Using crime statistics, I noticed that in Frederick County, Md., we were having a real problem with minor petty retail theft. It seemed to be happening every day. The shoplifting reports were frequent and seemed to be specific to certain products such as baby formula, printer ink, batteries and other items such as diapers, deodorant and personal hygiene products. None of these crimes rose to the level of felony theft, which at that time was $1,000. Those who had been caught were primarily from Prince George’s County or the District of Columbia, which was 45 minutes to an hour away from Frederick County. They seemed to be operating in pairs and knew very little about each other. Due to the minor nature of their crimes the vast majority, unless there was an outstanding warrant, were released on personal recognizance, and were for the most part very unlikely to appear when their court date came up.

Individually, the value of the thefts was insignificant. As a whole, the thefts put together were well into five figures. I took the time during an arrest to bring in the suspect and conduct an interview. I learned the suspect was a part of an organized effort. They would all show up in the morning to a pawn shop owned by a group of Pakistanis in Prince George’s County. They would be divided up into teams of two or three and would be given a list of items to steal. They would also be given a route and names of stores along with location where they were supposed to go and boost the desired products. Upon returning to the pawn shop at the end of the day they would be paid for the number of products they came back with or given drugs. In this incident the thief was more interested in drugs, and was afraid if I locked her up she would not be able to feed her habit. She knew that she could not steal more than $1,000 worth of goods from any store because she knew she would not get released if caught committing a felony.

Being the dedicated investigator, I reached out to the major big-box stores in my area such as Target and Walmart. Each of them was aware of the products that were targeted but had no idea it was happening to their competitors or the small businesses in our county. I was also able to reach out to police in Prince George’s County and the FBI. They were aware of the reported fencing operation at the pawn shop but did not have enough evidence to make an arrest. This was only a few months prior to the tragedy of 9/11. The FBI reported that the suspects running the pawn shop had been arrested in New Jersey for the same type of operation and they seemed to just move around, changing business names and ownership when the heat got to hot. The FBI believed it was a Pakistani operation and feared that the proceeds from this retail organized theft ring were finding their way abroad to finance terrorist organizations.

Based upon what was uncovered I determined that I needed to pull the business community together and make them aware of what was happening and hoped we could share the evidence. With the help of the larger box store, and the eventual financial help of a major corporation in the area that saw the value of meeting and sharing with the business community, and later any citizen that was interested we formed a group and met monthly. Getting the buy-in from other county and local police agencies, I shared my spreadsheet and found out that the business community was able to piece together almost the entire operation. We helped each other out. The business community was made aware of what the police had going on and suspect information for not only retail theft operations but other crimes as well. Before long the police were receiving intelligence information from the business community on things they were seeing that the police would never had known.

As the regular meetings progressed, we were able to provide the business community and the public with training and seminars to meet their needs and they were able to provide the police with valuable and actionable intelligence. The intelligence gathered was used to break up several organized theft and burglary rings and identified several armed robbery suspects in the area. The gathered intelligence was also used combined with information from other areas of the state to identify various gang members and their associates. At the height of these meetings, it was not unusual to have 110 people come to each briefing.

This took effort, coordination, and a determination to share what I could. All concerns were able to freely be discussed and shared. For a variety of investigative reasons, all we knew could not be shared. What we discovered was that if the public knows what we are looking for and has an idea of why we are looking for it, they will readily assist and are more than willing to work with us. The other thing we discovered was that by holding these meetings over a lunch with local restaurants taking turns pitching in and participating, relationships were formed across the board.

As a business owner, manager or a private citizen it is much easier and more comfortable to pick up the telephone and call a local law enforcement official who has sat across the table with you over lunch and a cup of coffee than it is to call and speak to somebody who is nothing more than a voice on the other end of the telephone. The communication is freer-flowing and there is much more care and concern generated to meet each other’s needs. We had no idea until we began to track the law enforcement pain-in-the-backside report of shoplifting that may have tied into funds going overseas to possibly support terrorist plots against us.

The key to data harvesting and intelligence gathering is simply getting out from behind a desk and a computer and do some old-fashioned police footwork. It can be started with picking several businesses from across the board in your jurisdiction that are having a problem or are concerned with crime issues and inviting them in to sit down. The police must break the ice and must be willing to openly discuss crime trends and public safety concerns with them. Do not limit yourself to the big issues and understand that every terrorist must fund themselves. They do that by committing other small-time crimes and, unless the investigative or intelligence unit is looking, will fly unnoticed and well under the radar.

Be willing to share what you can with the business community and public. I have found that local Chambers of Commerce are also very supportive and will help coordinate meetings and do a lot of the meeting notification for you. As the meetings progress, provide our business community and citizens with a segment of training. Local prosecutors are more than willing to provide some pointers and suggestions to improve their cases by educating the business community. We had the Secret Service come in and do a session on counterfeiting and the latest credit-card fraud schemes. We had more than 200 people attend that meeting. All the while those people are engaged and willing to help the police and relationships are being formed.

Intelligence is useless unless it can be used and turned into some sort of action. If we invest the time into those citizens we are sworn to protect and bring them into the overall crime prevention and terrorist prevention plan, it will pay dividends and make our jobs a little easier. Do not expect an immediate return on the investment of time. It takes time to build positive relationships. However, if those relationships developed can help foil one mall shooting, crime spree or act of terrorism, it will be time and effort well spent.

David Reichenbaugh
David Reichenbaugh
David Reichenbaugh's passion for law enforcement started at a very early age which led him to seek a degree in criminal justice. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is a graduate of North Western University Traffic Institute School of Police Staff and Command. David retired after 23 years service with the Maryland State Police as a Lieutenant and Barrack Commander in Cumberland Maryland. David's career started as a road Trooper and continued on as a criminal investigator, undercover narcotics investigator, major violators supervisor, homicide and high profile case investigator, and assisted in the development of the intelligence unit of the MSP post 9/11. He is the author of "In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers."

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