The recent anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 always is a time of reflection and remembrance. It also always raises the question; will an attack happen again? Many criminal justice experts say yes, it is inevitable. Perhaps that is true but rest assured, the aviation law enforcement community has tirelessly prepared, trained and stands ready to defend against such heinous and cowardly terrorist attacks now and in the future.
What has changed?
One of the most positive changes is that airborne law enforcement is now very proactive in the counter-terrorism mission. Rather than simply react to such events, airborne law enforcement now performs and actively conducts directed patrols at many locations such as sporting events, critical infrastructure, transportation hubs and tourist sites. These airborne patrols serve two purposes.
- They are actively looking for suspicious activity of a pending attack or pre-attack surveillance operations, and
- The patrols send a very visible and strong message to both the terrorists and the public that the agency is on guard, and trying to prevent these incidents.
Although it might seem that these patrols are akin to the proverbial finding a needle in a haystack, intelligence has shown that these adjusted tactics have had an impact. Specifically in 2004, the NYPD intercepted e-mails from an operative that was conducting surveillance at a New York City bridge. He indicated that an attack was not possible because the weather was too hot, obviously referring to police activity at the bridge. Today, airborne law enforcement is more widely used in these types of missions and assignments. Naturally, these types of operations not only impact potential terrorist attacks, they also help reduce conventional crime. If an airborne law enforcement unit is conducting a patrol at a railroad station parking lot, the potential car thief will also take notice or might even be caught in the act.
Technology Improvements / Enhancements
Many technologies have been introduced and refined to make airborne law enforcement a very important and much more valuable resource in the counter-terrorism arena. Moving maps, enhanced video capabilities and night vision have all given airborne law enforcement a huge advantage. In one foreign city plagued by violence largely related to drug cartels, airborne surveillance is conducted every day for approximately 18 hours a day. This surveillance is archived and if necessary, reviewed and interpreted by trained experts. The surveillance is producing amazing results. In a recent street shooting, the surveillance tapes were reviewed; subject cars were identified and soon investigators were able to arrest multiple suspects. The tapes showed where the cars had come from and where they went after the shooting. The same holds true for a terrorism investigation. If a subject meets with others at a specific location, they could be followed to subsequent locations, providing excellent intelligence for investigators. This can be particularly valuable when an investigator becomes aware of a meeting that occurred two weeks ago. The archived tapes can be retrieved and reviewed. Valuable intelligence is not lost and might prove to be a valuable lead.
The introduction of high definition images also gives exceptional quality video and images for investigators to use including the capturing of license plates numbers. The ability to downlink video and images to emergency operations centers and senior staff can be invaluable. This capability has provided the ability for an agency to react and respond to real-time intelligence and events. As a situation unfolds in real-time, the agency can respond effectively and in a more coordinated manner.
In the last nine years, many agencies have seen much greater cooperation between aviation and tactical units. These agencies recognize that they may be called upon to respond to a terrorist act and it is imperative that these units maintain a high state of readiness and cooperation. Using the unique capabilities of the helicopter, teams can rappel and fast-rope and counter-snipers can be deployed onboard aircraft. These new challenges and responsibilities require extensive training.
Obviously, the counter-terrorism mission is not going away anytime soon. The entire law enforcement community will be challenged to prevent these types of attacks and will seek out better training and equipment. Airborne law enforcement can expect to see improved cameras and surveillance capability both in fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft.
Another rapidly emerging technology will be unmanned aerial systems (UAS). These systems, which are slowly emerging on the law enforcement market, will provide yet another tool for numerous law enforcement missions. The unmanned aerial systems do provide many advantages but are still in their infancy. Their actual capabilities and effectiveness remain relatively unknown in law enforcement operations. It is not hard to imagine small unmanned aerial vehicles conducting discreet surveillance, monitoring shipping lanes or other high profile locations. Although they are largely untested, one thing is certain; the unmanned aerial system won’t be calling the Sergeant for a bathroom break!
The September 11th anniversaries are always a time for somber reflection about the sacrifices made by our fellow first responders. They also serve as a grim reminder about what we do and why we do it. Airborne law enforcement continues to meet these adversaries and will always be on guard to protect against terror.