Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Comprehensive Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) System Requires Action

Abstract: A robust, comprehensive, and integrated suspicious activity reporting (SAR) system, linking the unique observations of law enforcement personnel from around the nation, is a necessary component of a 21st-century policing strategy predicated on the increasing role of state and local law enforcement in the battle against domestic radicalization and homegrown terror.
The Department of Justice, under which the initiative to expand the nationwide adoption of SAR operates, should vigorously promote the use of SAR within federal, state, local, and public agencies.

Police officers have long been the first line of defense against criminal activity across America. Since 9/11, law enforcement personnel have been able to obtain a diverse data set of information through a process known as suspicious activity reporting (SAR). SAR has provided police officers with a greater understanding of the potential nexus between traditional criminal activity and terrorism.
Formalizing the process of collecting and understanding the diverse information presented to public safety personnel is at the heart of the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI ).

A team of experts, working under the aegis of the Information Sharing Environment–Suspicious Activity Reporting (ISE–SAR) Functional Standard Development Team, and in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Counterterrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, developed a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) that could assist personnel across the country with cultivating close working relationships in their communities. In promoting the SAR protocols across the approximately 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies within the United States, Congress and the Obama Administration should:

Ensure that consistent training is provided to the nation’s law enforcement communities;
Federal agencies should ensure that the robust and efficient nature of their SAR protocols demonstrates an exemplar for similarly situated state and local agencies;
Interact with state and local law enforcement leaders to convey a full appreciation for the importance of broadly adopted SAR procedures across all strata of law enforcement; and
Target homeland security grant funding for the training of SAR at state and local law enforcement agencies, especially those in high-risk jurisdictions.

The SOPs developed though ISE–SAR led to the SAR Information Exchange Packet Documentation (IEPD) in 2007,[1] which standardized and defined semantic congruity, so that terms associated with suspicious activity could be understood by all participating SAR agencies. Law enforcement, health, energy, and transportation sectors could now aggregate information based on a common terminology. This simple, but necessary, function of SAR standardization greatly improved the communication of information among agencies and allowed suspicious trends to be observed across a variety of platforms, such as federal, state, local, and private agencies.

The ISE–SAR team also provided a common definition of “suspicious activity”—“Observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity,”[2] thereby reducing a potential conflict of interpretations.
The effort to evaluate and enhance the evolution of SAR protocols ultimately linked the NSI to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the eGuardian system, an online network administered by the FBI that links all levels of government to data related to activity and information with a potential nexus to terrorism.[4]

As the domestic terror threat grows, the accumulation of information, gathered and analyzed into actionable intelligence, becomes a necessity across the national law enforcement community.
Even a perfunctory examination of cases in which SAR protocols have staved off potential terrorist attacks underscores just how necessary their widespread adoption has become. A number of agencies that have been at the forefront of adopting SAR protocols have proven the protocols to be an important element in their ability to inhibit criminal and terrorist activity.

A 2010 report  by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions (IHSS) starkly revealed the extent to which both state and local law enforcement officers, and their vigilant counterparts in the public, have uncovered and inhibited terrorist activities in the U.S. and against American interests abroad.
Revealingly, over 80 percent of the 68 thwarted cases were the subject of full criminal investigations that resulted from the initial observations of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers conducting routine police work, and through the vigilant observations of the public.[6]
Several agencies have been at the vanguard of adopting and implementing robust and comprehensive SAR protocols. The LAPD , whose Counterterrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau offered the foundation for the ISE–SAR team’s recommendations for SAR standardization, has been very successful in developing and making use of information obtained through the LAPD’s SAR system.

The Boston Police Department’s Regional Intelligence Center, established in 2005, serves as a dedicated resource for the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information obtained by local law enforcement. The center’s model for information collection and analysis has served as a bulwark against criminal and terrorist plots in the Boston area.
Additionally, the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division  offers an example of one of the world’s most comprehensive intelligence and counterterrorism efforts by any state or local law enforcement agency. Case Study: The LAPD’s Jam’yyat al-Islam al-Saheeh (JIS) Case
The information that led to the uncovering of this terror plot emphasizes the often tenuous nexus between traditional street-level criminal activity and terrorism. Soon, JIS members found themselves paroled and living in society, while carrying out the JIS mandate of plotting terror attacks.

Although James remained behind prison walls, others members of JIS carried out his terrorist conspiracies.
This obvious intersection of terrorism and traditional criminal activity stresses the importance of SAR within all state and local jurisdictions.
This information was quickly forwarded to local and regional investigators. What had begun as an investigation into traditional, local criminal activity had quickly evolved into an investigation with implications of homegrown terror and radicalization. The four JIS members were quickly identified, and a collaboration of federal and local law enforcement officers arrested them.[8]O’Brien further commented on the imminent threat of the JIS terror plot. The JIS case typifies how important it is to have both well-informed officers at the local level, as well as an outlet for observed suspicious activity to be funneled for further analysis. In attempting to prevent future acts of terrorism against Americans, leaders at the federal level must not only engage the more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies across the nation—they must also empower those agencies to adopt comprehensive and fully integrated SAR protocols in their jurisdictions. Such SAR adoption can be accomplished by taking the following steps:

The Department of Justice and DHS should ensure that SAR training and implementation standards are uniform and comprehensive. The Department of Justice, under which the Program Management Office oversees implementation of the NSI, should strongly encourage state and local law enforcement agencies that currently employ unique SAR protocols in their jurisdictions to update their training and standards through participation in the NSI training courses. Federal partners should interact with state and local law enforcement leaders. Any effective implementation of SAR protocols begins with acceptance of their necessity by a jurisdiction’s executive leadership. Congress and DHS should target homeland security grants for SAR training consistent with desired outcomes. While the cost of participation in NSI-administered SAR training is not borne by the participating states and local agencies, a dedicated source of funding for such training would nonetheless enable a higher level of participation among interested agencies. Congress and DHS should target homeland security grants for SAR training.
—Scott G. Erickson has worked in law enforcement for the past decade, and has studied the proliferation of homegrown terrorism and the response by domestic law enforcement.