Nearly seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war on terror in Providence, R.I., has evolved into a quiet struggle against a phantom foe. Last year, when a sailor slipped over the side of a Turkish merchant ship in the city's port, a Providence police detective assigned to a joint terrorism task force was quickly alerted, reflecting a new vigilance since the Sept. 11 attacks. Alerts also went out to immigration, customs, the F.B.I. and other federal agencies, but the case went cold.
Like most of the country's more than 18,000 local law enforcement agencies, the Providence Police Department went to war against terror after 9/11, embracing a fundamental shift in its national security role. Flush with federal homeland-security grants, the department acquired millions of dollars worth of hardware and enrolled officers in training courses to detect and respond to a terrorist attack. But now, police officials here express doubts about whether the imperative to protect domestic security has blinded federal authorities to other priorities. The department is battling homicides, robberies and gang shootings that the police in a number of cities say are as serious a threat as terrorism.