Anti-terror center adds crime focus
In a windowless office at Chicago police headquarters, Detective JohnBenigno checks out several computer databases in an effort to identify theowner of a truck like one seen at a murder scene.
When he’s done, he will send a package of information to the detectivesworking on the case, keeping investigators on the street and away from theirdesks.
“We’re like phone-a-friend,” the detective said. “Something that would takea detective hours to do, we can do in half the time. They don’t have to do thebackground because I’m doing it.”
Benigno works at the city’s new Crime Prevention Information Center, whichbegan operations without fanfare months ago, launched on $1 million in federaland state grants. CPIC is one of 58 “fusion centers” opening across thecountry in just the last two years. The centers came in response to the 9/11Commission report that called for better sharing of terrorism intelligence atthe national, state and local levels.
More than just a conduit for national threat warnings, Chicago’s center isan example of a new trend: Rather than focus exclusively on terrorism threats,it is also using its staff and resources to work on local crime prevention.That dual mission places Chicago’s center in the middle of a nationwide debateabout how the federally funded fusion centers should operate.
A lengthy Congressional Research Service report released earlier this yearestimated that about 40 percent of the centers focus their efforts on”all-crime” issues rather than just on preventing terrorism. Doubts aboutwhether the centers could maintain relevance – and funding – during lulls interrorism threats pushed many of the centers to develop more localcrime-fighting roles, according to the report.
In congressional hearings this summer, some questioned whether local crimeprevention detracted from the centers’ original intent to prevent terrorism.Some civil liberties groups have also been critical, questioning what they sayis a lack of federal oversight to safeguard privacy rights.
Since 2005, the Department of Homeland Security has given more than $380million in grants to help start, train and staff the centers.
In an effort to give the centers direction, the White House last monthissued a 31-page strategy paper. It also emphasized the need to protect theprivacy of American citizens in the course of developing the centers.
“We’re happy to see the discussion beginning on this, but there’s a lotmore that needs to be done,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of theWashington D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Federal privacy guidelines need to be followed, and officials should keep aclose watch on how the information being gathered is used to ensure it isn’tabused, she said. Chicago Police Cmdr. David Sobczyk said preventing localcrime works hand in hand with fighting terrorism.
The Congressional Research Service report questioned whether states thathave more than one fusion center would be duplicating services and wastingresources. The White House’s new strategy calls for each state to name onefusion center as a point-agency.
In Illinois, that point center is the Statewide Terrorism IntelligenceCenter in Springfield, started by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the IllinoisTerrorism Task Force, and one of the first fusion centers to open in thecountry.
The center opened in 2005 and was primarily focused on terrorism. Itquickly expanded its mission to include all crime prevention. Eventually itwill become an all-hazards information center, including natural disasters andother massive incidents, said Illinois State Police Cmdr. Richard Woods, thestatewide investigative support commander who oversees the center.
“It’s been quite an evolution,” he said. “After 9/11, certainly the nationwas focused on terrorism…. But as the fusion center has evolved, wediscovered there was added value in information gathering, intelligencegathering and sharing information with regard to other crimes.”
The state’s center has 40 people on staff, including members of HomelandSecurity, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Woods said he didn’t see Chicago’s center as competition but rather acooperative effort.
“I don’t think there can be too much information gathered on a particulargroup, particularly in the area of terrorism,” he said. “The key is sharinginformation, and we do that well.”
Sobczyk said opening a fusion center in Chicago was a “no-brainer” becauseit cuts out the middleman between intelligence the state obtains and Chicagopolice’s ability to act on it.
About 30 full-time people staff the Chicago center, which hosts a number ofoutside agencies. Each week, one of 35 suburban departments working with thecenter lends a detective to help field suburban calls for information. Inaddition to state police, the Cook County sheriff’s office and the FBI alsodetail people to the center, and Homeland Security will soon gain access foran agent to work there full-time.
“It is so much better than before 9/11,” said Des Plaines Police Chief JimPrandini, who lends one of his detectives to the center a few times a month.”We have much more access to information than we did before.”
For example, in late June, when London officials found bombs in two parkedcars and disabled them, Chicago police had a direct line to intelligenceinformation from Washington through the center, officials said. No red tapemeant faster reaction time for Chicago police, Sobczyk said.
Investigators and officers at the center also perform a variety of dutiesfor local investigations. On a daily basis, some detectives might be scanningthe department’s criminal database – the Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysisand Reporting system – to work up a background package on a suspect fordetectives. Another officer might review real-time footage from videosurveillance cameras that dot the city.
Months after the center opened, Sobczyk conceded, the center’s benefitshave been a slow sell to street cops.
One detective who spoke on condition of anonymity said some of hiscolleagues are skeptical about the new center because they don’t know whetherthe investigators would cover the same ground as thoroughly as they would.
With each new piece of technology, Sobczyk said, it takes time for thedepartment rank and file to realize the benefits.
“If you get one [police] watch to use that resource and it workssuccessfully, it turns into an arrest, then by word of mouth on that watch, webecome golden,” Sobczyk said.