Baltimore Police Lt. David Engel commands a 36-member intelligence unit that works closely with federal agents specializing in national security. The Baltimore Sun reports that the team tracks global terrorist activity, scans the Internet, and pumps informants for tips about potential threats. Among them, the detectives speak more than a dozen languages, and some are experts on detecting fraudulent documents. Their work is part of a growing trend of local police agencies’ becoming more involved in intelligence, a mission that before Sept. 11, 2001, was almost the sole domain of federal agencies.
Police departments have created intelligence units or beefed up existing ones out of concern that federal agencies do not have the manpower to track down tens of thousands of leads, any one of which could prevent a terrorist attack. Local detectives have joined federal anti-terrorism teams helping to expand the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces from 35 to 66 nationally since 2001.
“There’s an emerging use of police and officers for intelligence gathering,” said Ritchie Martinez, president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts, which seeks better training and stronger ethical codes for police intelligence officers. “The only way to properly evaluate our response to threats is to have people dedicated to working the information.”
Hundreds of police departments have assigned an officer or two to work on federal terrorism task forces. Other agencies have taken preparations a step further. The Maryland State Police created a Homeland Security and Intelligence Bureau. The Maryland Transportation Authority Police hired an intelligence chief to coordinate the flow of information. The New York Police Department stationed detectives overseas and hired a former director of operations of the CIA to lead its intelligence bureau. The Boston Police Department doubled its intelligence unit.
Police have eagerly embraced intelligence units, but civil libertarians express concerns. In Denver, police kept thousands of files on people with no criminal record — a practice uncovered in a lawsuit by a civil liberties group. In April, New York police stopped collecting information about the political beliefs of arrested protesters after being criticized.
In Baltimore, police say they follow federal guidelines on intelligence gathering. They routinely review and expunge files after five years if people are no longer considered threats, said Engel, head of the intelligence unit.