The arrest of a Washington, D.C., transit officer on charges of trying to aid the Islamic State could raise concerns among U.S. police departments about radicalization within the ranks, especially given officers’ ability to access potential targets, reports USA Today. “They would be trusted by other officers, especially if they’re in uniform or have identification and would therefore get access to areas that average commuters would not,” said Phil Schertzing, a retired inspector for the Michigan State Police. “And, of course, they’re carrying weapons.” Nicholas Young, a 13-year veteran of D.C.’s Metro Transit Police Department, was arrested yesterday. He is charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. He is the first U.S. police officer to face a terror-related charge.
The case illustrates the potential havoc a radicalized police officer could represent and raises questions about how law enforcement agents are vetted. “You think about an airport or a subway system, the kind of damage that could be done with explosives and so on … we’re talking vulnerable targets,” said Frederick Shenkman, a law enforcement expert and professor emeritus at the University of Florida. Police agencies typically screen applicants by checking prior employment, doing a criminal records check, and finding out the type of discharge received if they were in the military. Some agencies will assign someone to do a background investigation, interviewing people who knew or worked with the applicant. But such background investigations can be expensive and many smaller departments don’t do them. “There are 18,000 police agencies in the United States and they have 800,000 officers,” Shenkman. “They average 12 to 14 officers each. They’re closer to being like Andy in Mayberry (of the 1960s Andy Griffith Show) than they are to being the NYPD.”