Local law enforcement agencies still aren't getting enough information from the FBI to respond effectively to security threats, according to the head of the country's largest organization of police executives.
Despite a new color-coded terrorism alert system and FBI Director Robert Mueller's expressed commitment to better coordinate with local law enforcement agencies, police still aren't getting information specific enough to help them identify terrorist risks in their communities, said Bill Berger, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and police chief of North Miami Beach, Fla. On Sept. 10, when the Justice Department raised the threat level of possible terrorist attacks from "elevated" to "high," many local police didn't learn of the change until it was announced to the public, Berger said.
"It didn't work again," Berger said, adding that the level of information from the FBI varied by region. Most local police in New England were informed by the FBI office in that area of the elevated threat level about an hour before the public, but police in other regions didn't know about the change until Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge announced it at a press conference, Berger said.
"Baltimore had a 45-minute notice, Florida was [officially] notified an hour and a half afterwards, and California was notified several hours afterwards…the system still has flaws; it's something we have to work on," Berger said.
Ridge introduced the color-coded national alert system in March to help government and law enforcement officials gauge security threats and allocate their resources appropriately. The security level was introduced at the yellow, "elevated" risk level, and remained unchanged until Sept. 10, when it was raised to the orange, "high" risk level. The government had issued four warnings about terrorist attacks prior to the system's introduction, but police complained that those warnings were too general and drained their resources because they didn't know where to focus their efforts.
An orange alert directs the federal government to "coordinate necessary security efforts with armed forces or law enforcement agencies," according to the White House Web site. But Berger said that coordination never took place on Sept. 10, despite the creation last December of an Office of Law Enforcement Coordination in FBI headquarters which serves as the main point of contact for many organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Berger acknowledged that the FBI's warnings have become more specific since the new alert system took effect, but coordination among federal and local law enforcement agencies still needs improvement, he said. Better coordination and information sharing rests primarily with the FBI's regional offices, he added, and some-such as the New England office-have been more responsive than others.
"What I hear from New England [police chiefs] is they have so much information they are ready to throw much of it out. The problem is the rest of the country," Berger said. FBI regional offices in the rest of the country haven't improved their information-sharing practices that much since the terrorist attacks, according to Berger.
The FBI and the Office of Homeland Security did not return phone calls for this story.