Abdication of Leadership in Public Safety - 9/13/2009
Thomas G. McWeeney
Center for Strategic Management
Leadership, or lack thereof, is being recognized as the most significant contributor to man of our nation's current crises. With increasing frequency, commentators are pointing to a perceived leadership void on Wall Street and in our economic, foreign affairs, health care, energy, and environmental policies, suggesting that we have squandered opportunities, lost precious time, and allowed small problems to grow in magnitude and complexity. With polls now reflecting that as many as 80 percent of Americans believe that the United States now faces a "leadership crisis," it is not surprising that President Obama is focusing his management agenda on "renewing people's trust in their leadership."
While polls also indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans attribute perceived leadership failings to Wall Street, the business community, and Congress, the Executive Branch appears to be most vulnerable to the charge that those entrusted with public leadership positions have seemed unwilling or unable to accept the responsibilities of this public trust. On the whole, those familiar with management of the executive branch in recent years commonly hold the view that our leaders are not asserting clear direction, making wise and bold decisions, initiating effective action, and accepting full responsibility for inadequate performance. Instead, they appear to have found comfort in inaction - citing the complexity of problems, unclear authority, limited jurisdiction, and insufficient resources as factors that have prevented them from doing the right thing, so much so that even a discussion of doing the right thing seems to have become a lost art. Across the board, on issues large and small, simple and complex, it seems as though the most important things to be done remain unaddressed because they are nobody's job to do.
With potentially grave consequences to our public safety, the sharing of law enforcement records within the law enforcement community is one such issue in which the leadership void has limited action and impeded progress. Reviews conducted in the aftermath of September 11 identified the inability of our law enforcement agencies to access relevant data maintained collectively by the American law enforcement community as a major vulnerability that needed priority attention. The 9/11 Commission report called for "unifying the many participants in the counterterrorism effort and their knowledge in a network-based information-sharing system that transcends traditional government boundaries," underscoring the idea that law enforcement should never again be denied the ability to use information already within its possession to protect the U.S. from attack.
Despite more than a decade of high rhetoric and half measures, our nation remains needlessly vulnerable to terrorism and unnecessarily suffers from crime because our leaders have not shown the personal commitment needed to reform the way our law enforcement agencies collaborate and share critically important information. Over seven years have passed since September 11, 2001, and there remains no clear consensus on: 1) the nature of the information that should be shared, and with whom; 2) the best method to make all sharable information available to those who need it; or 3) who should lead, plan, or fund this important national requirement. On this significant but relatively simple issue, this failure of leadership could be lethal.
Mandate for Action
Law enforcement professionals throughout the country now clearly understand that America's nearly one million state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement officers have become "front line soldiers" in the War on Terror. The bits of information these officers routinely gather in the course of their day-to-day work - the much discussed "dots" waiting to be connected - are now viewed as potential clues which, once collected and analyzed, can reveal vital information concerning terrorism-related activities and other crimes that may be taking place throughout the country.
We know that terrorists have a propensity to run afoul of the law in many areas that remain outside the reach of Federal investigators. The 9/11 hijackers received traffic tickets in the weeks just prior to the hijackings; Mohammed Atta tried to gain access to a military base in the summer of 2001; and law enforcement records identified individuals who said they wanted to learn to fly planes but not land them. In other circumstances, law enforcement records have revealed links between suspected terrorists and petty thefts, fraud schemes, drug trafficking, and weapons violations.
The information contained in the files of our 20,000 state, local, tribal, and territorial police and sheriffs' departments is always available to explain the factors that led to a terrorist incident after it occurs. The post-9/11 mandate has emphasized the need for this information to be made available to investigators before a terrorist act occurs, with the intent of preventing another devastating event.
While safeguarding the homeland is a national priority, preventing terrorism is not the only area that would be materially enhanced by a comprehensive information sharing system in the United States. Virtually all crimes in every community could be more quickly solved, criminals more quickly apprehended, and potential victims saved from thereat and attacks on their well being. In a handful of communities, fully integrated law enforcement information sharing systems are thriving, and examples abound in which child abductors, bank robbers, cop killers, and other violent criminals - who would not otherwise have been apprehended - have been identified and subsequently brought to justice. An example from a community that has adopted a comprehensive law enforcement information sharing effort illustrates this potential:
While walking home from school, a young teenage girl was confronted by a man in his mid-twenties driving an "old white care." When the man asked her to get in the car, she was able to get away and report the incident to her mother, who then called the police. Upon arriving at the scene, the police faced a situation in which they had no further information than a vague description of a young man with blond hair, driving an old white car, with the letters "FVN" in the license plate.
With only this data to go on, police in nearly every other community in the United States could do nothing but file a report in hopes that it might be helpful if the predator struck again. However, the information sharing system in this community was queried and - within seconds - produced report in formation from several neighboring police districts that identified a young blond man, with an old white car, with "FVN" in the license plate, who was a registered sex offender. This system, which can prevent the unthinkable from happening to other young girls across the nation, can be made available everywhere in a very short time. Regrettably, the Federal Government has no plans currently in place to expand it.
With this kind of information sharing system, law enforcement has a far greater chance of "connecting the dots" and can more easily identify and remove from the streets the money launderer, drug trafficker, embezzler, bank robber, and murderer. Unfortunately, the majority of the country has no such system.
The value of comprehensive information sharing is now commonly accepted, especially among state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement officials. They recognize that information sharing is a critical requirement for public safety in our dangerous world and want to share their records. Federal officials at all levels strongly affirm the concept, point to great progress being made within their agencies, and rhetorically support information initiatives in virtually every forum. Yet, confusion reigns as four critical questions remain unanswered: Why are most of our nation's law enforcement agencies not systematically sharing information with one another and the Federal Government in 2009? Why is no credible national plan in place? Where is the Federal Government on this issue? Who is, or should be leading the effort? The silence on these basic questions is alarming.
A clear consensus exists that information sharing is the way of the future - no one opposes the concept, and most Federal agencies are in some way participating in activity related to improving information sharing. Our federal system and long tradition of independence among America's police agencies have created many obstacles - including very legitimate concerns for privacy, local ordinances, and security - that have made law enforcement information sharing historically difficult to achieve. However, strong and effective leaders have emerged in several communities that have embraced comprehensive information sharing, and they have used their leadership skills and personal commitment to public safety to address and overcome virtually all concerns. Most sheriffs, police officers, and Federal officers now agree that the value and benefits of sharing information far outweigh the obstacles, bureaucracies, and turf battles that have thus far prevented it.
Need: An Assertion of Leadership
Over the last five years, the Federal Government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in direct funding and grants to help state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies develop and implement an assortment of information sharing projects, but it has not endorsed a comprehensive national plan. Almost every Federal agency has been involved in efforts with state, local, tribal, and territorial jurisdictions to identify requirements, test and deploy new technologies, and participate in projects that include an information sharing component. However, little evidence shows that a) the dollars spent on this activity have improved law enforcement operations; b) the effort expended has resulted in widespread sharing of important information not previously shared; or c) the majority of projects has produced any significant contributions to or positive impact on the nation's safety. Federal agencies continue to be preoccupied with the sharing of information internally, within their departments. No leadership has emerged to authoritatively speak or act on behalf of the overarching national need.
The missing leadership dimension is clear. Federal agencies focused on information sharing are concerned primarily with internal records and sharing mechanisms within their own agencies - virtually no one has taken an aggressive stance on the need to systematically organize our communities in support of information sharing systems. No individual or entity had authoritatively defined information sharing or provided definitive guidance on what data should be shared, the circumstances that will permit effective sharing, or the policy that will support the issue. Authoritative guidance has not set forth the appropriate governance model necessary to permit sharing of law enforcement records across multiple jurisdictions.
Success in public policy requires many things, but it is critically dependent on 1) a clear vision that can be effectively communicated; 2) innovative strategies that overcome obstacles; and 3) strong assertive action to demonstrate success. Law enforcement information sharing continues to be a priority of almost everyone but seems to be the responsibility of almost no one. This suggests a failure of leadership.
While the information sharing issue has been debated for decades and gained momentum in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Obama Administration's priorities suggest that an imperative for action still exists. First, the President has indicated that his Administration will accelerate our use of technical capabilities to deliver government services more efficiently and effectively. Using technology to allow law enforcement agencies to share information appears to clearly meet this standard. Second, the President has emphasized a commitment to supporting laws and government practices that maximize transparency. The practices in the communities that have developed fully integrated information sharing systems are models of transparency that have essentially eliminated stovepipe systems and cultural barriers, as well as addressed privacy and civil liberties concerns to the satisfaction of the users within those communities. Finally, the President has promised to take the lead on issues that provide tangible benefits to ordinary Americans. Without question, effective information sharing will enhance public safety and reduce crime, thereby providing Americans with one of their most basic human rights - the right to be secure in one's home and community.
Imperative for Action
Addressing this issue is not hard, but it requires strong and committed leadership. As such, we propose the following actions to set in motion the forces necessary to transform the current environment:
- The requirement of effective law enforcement information sharing should be set forth in legislation to present clear and concise requirements for effective systems. The legislation should require that Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies make "all legally shareable information" available to one another through a national information sharing system. This standard is currently used by information sharing projects that have proven their effectiveness.
- The legislation should call for the integration of Federal law enforcement records with state, local, tribal,and territorial records in secure environments, albeit with the inclusion of strong safeguards for the privacy and civil liberties concerns of American citizens.
- The legislation should designate a lead Federal agency to design, develop, and ensure funding for a national project. The lead agency should be tasked with developing a national plan that will make all law enforcement records instantly available to officials with a legitimate need for the information. The plan should specify how the various regional information sharing projects will be connected to a comprehensive system; how the overall system will be managed; how Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial records will be integrated; and how security will be ensured and accountability enforced. The plane should also include an implementation schedule to ensure that the national system is completed within a three year period.
- The Federal Government should set aside funding to initiate and manage this effort, as well as direct grant funds to projects that meet these standards.
If we believe that our nation's law enforcement agencies could already hold information critical to preventing the next terrorist attack on American soil, or that we have a responsibility to prevent crime that would otherwise occur and apprehend criminals who would otherwise go free, then individuals in responsible positions must assert a different kind of leadership to make law enforcement information sharing happen. Rather than focusing on management approaches or personality traits, the leadership required to eliminate needless vulnerabilities must focus on a) saying and doing the right thing; b) demonstrating the moral courage to act boldly and wisely; c) showing a personal commitment to seeing important issues through to completion; d) accepting full responsibility for performance successes and failures; and e) maintaining a strong position of trust within the law enforcement community. This order is a tall one, and leaders demonstrating these attributes are in short supply.
One thing is clear - the results we increasingly expect from our government can no longer be obtained from single agencies, single programs, or single jurisdictions. In practically every field of endeavor, results, such as the prevention of terrorism or the reduction of crime, require extraordinary collaboration among those who share mission responsibilities. The demands of the 21st Century do not fit neatly within the singular jurisdictions of our departments of government. As such, those in leadership positions must exhibit extraordinary effort in devising solutions and initiating actions that require shared responsibility and full consideration of strategic partners. In the emerging world, our ability to collaborate with one another will be as important to our success as our capabilities. Law enforcement information sharing - which in many ways epitomizes both the need for collaboration and the obstacles to achieving it - cannot find success without collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Further, this essential collaboration will not occur without leaders who demonstrate their commitment to making law enforcement information sharing a reality - failure on this issue is not longer an acceptable option.
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