Local police budget limitations and the need for analytics impact national security

May 9, 2016

In 2010 Police Chief magazine published an article titled: “s”. In it, they wrote about the critical role that needs to be played by local law enforcement in proactively preventing terrorism. They noted that terrorism frequently covers multiple jurisdictions, with the terrorists planning the attack in one jurisdiction (city), passing through other cities, and then attacking in another city. This means that properly trained and equipped police forces have several opportunities to prevent the sort of terrorist attack that unfortunately we are now becoming all too familiar with. In this edition, Greg Fyffe and Kevin Hampson look at key limitations that hamper such investigations.

In 2013, the SSPC (Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict) went a step further, writing that “local police are not just partners in the fight against terrorism but are actually the best personnel to prevent terrorist attacks […] if they go after the basic principles of policing including patrolling, information gathering, and surveillance of suspects of the area concerned. They are the appropriate persons in a good position to find out and investigate local terrorist threats, and they can work to neutralize the sleeper cells and ensure that vulnerable targets in their jurisdictions are protected.”

Fast forward to recent (March 2016) testimony of New York’s top cop, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton to the New York City Council Public Safety and Finance Committees, in which he states “We’re also able to turn every cop into a counterterror asset […] they [Critical Response Command] are trained in a full range of counter-terrorism tactics” The Policy commissioner went on to say that the New York City police department “relies on Homeland Security grant funds to maintain our terrorism prevention and response infrastructure”

As I see it, there are four important conclusions to be reached based on all of this:

  1. Local police are increasingly being recognized as key players in the fight against terrorism. They are the eyes and ears on the ground in cities around the world that have the locational advantage to see planning activities, spot people of interest and so forth.
  2. For local police to be an effective partner in the fight against terrorism requires a mix of the current police skill set (patrolling, information gathering, surveillance of suspects of concern, etc.) and new training and equipment.
  3. In their battle against national terrorism, local police forces may in fact be in a great position to develop intelligence related to terrorist activities that could occur in their city or even beyond their jurisdiction, elsewhere in the country or even internationally. It’s not just local.
  4. Given the national implications, cross-jurisdictional implications, and the kind of training and equipment required to take on this key role, funding cannot come solely from increasingly squeezed local police budgets.

Let’s link that to the recent Ottawa Police Decision to not equip officers with body cameras. By the way, Toronto city police, the Winnipeg police, and the Ontario Provincial Police as well as many others across Canada are looking into the body camera option. In the case of Ottawa, budget concerns was the reason for rejection of the purchase. This was a fiscally responsible decision in light of huge demands on the Ottawa police budget including the need for new officers. But in the fight against terrorism body cameras when tied to an analytics system that includes real time access to national security databases, no fly lists, terrorist watch list and so forth creates a huge opportunity for fighting terrorism.

While discussions about body cameras focuses on their importance in proving that the officer followed appropriate protocol, there is a significant opportunity to fight terrorism when you couple the data that the body camera creates with appropriate software. Think of the advantages of facial recognition software giving frontline officers access to critical information when they need it most. Imagine body-cam video being assessed using appropriate software, identifying images, people and patterns. This is not science fiction but a distinct possibility based on available technology today. Add to this appropriate training for our frontline workers – including for example behavioral analysis training, similar to that received by the many that work in Ben Gurion Airport in Israel – and you have a very effective local and national system in the fight against terrorism. But without something as basic as a body camera with appropriate analytics and data infrastructure the opportunity to capture and effectively utilize this kind of readily available data is lost. With so many police forces in Canada currently looking into including these cameras in their enforcement toolbox, imagine the national security advantages of all this data being gathered and analyzed. With U.S. police forces widely heading towards institutionalizing body cams shouldn’t Canadian officers be given a similar capacity?

One issue that needs to be worked out is the storage question. A recent Canadian Press article estimated video storage costs of $18 million on a secure server. While that number may sound reasonable, local police service budgets are already strained. The article also notes that third party and cloud-based storage would create a vulnerability that could put privacy at risk. Other issues revolve around the data infrastructure. For example for this kind of system to have maximum impact police across Canada and intelligence agencies would need access to each other’s databases. The person at the traffic stop in Ottawa may not appear visually in any Ottawa police database but they may appear in a CSIS one.

To be sure, body cameras do benefit local police officers during performance of their duties, which is why it has been looked at as a local police expense. Analytics and facial recognition software have advantages including fast identification of missing children, most wanted, those with outstanding warrants on them, and so forth, however, the cost of this kind of system, one that could be critical not just in fighting local crime but assisting in the fight against terrorism, is well beyond the funding capability of local police budgets.

So when the local police forces say they can’t afford body cameras, it may be time for federal and provincial departments and agencies responsible for our nation's security to look at their role and funding what the SPCC called “the best personnel to prevent terrorist attacks”, local police, and provide the equipment, training and infrastructure for the job. Let’s give our frontline officers the best chance to keep citizens safe, and recognize it’s a national need and not just a local expense.

Jonathan Calof, Executive Editor