Community Policing or Homeland Security: Sophie’s Choice for Police?

On Sept. 12, 2001, the Dearborn, Mich., Police Department put officers on 12-hour shifts for the first time in years. The purpose was so police could provide extra patrol around mosques, the Arab-American business district and schools with the largest...


On Sept. 12, 2001, the Dearborn, Mich., Police Department put officers on 12-hour shifts for the first time in years. The purpose was so police could provide extra patrol around mosques, the Arab-American business district and schools with the largest Arab-American populations.

More than 200,000 (approximately 30 percent) of the Dearborn population was Arab-American at the time of the terror attacks. Police were concerned there might be retaliatory hate crimes, a well-founded fear. Hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims living in the United States increased by 1,700 percent in 2001, according to crime statistics compiled by the FBI.

“It didn’t help when national media figures claimed there were ‘celebrations’ of the attacks in Dearborn by local Muslims, which was completely false,” says David Thacher, a University of Michigan professor of public policy and urban planning. Thacher says a lot of the people who criticized the police about other things appreciated the extra protection that day. The Dearborn Police Department was later recognized in a Human Rights Watch report as the only local police department in the country that had responded appropriately at the time to the threat of hate crimes.

Thacher says the Dearborn PD example illustrates a larger point: that in terms of homeland security, local police should see its role as community protection — protecting its own community from the threat of terrorism, whether it’s through preventative patrol against possible targets of attack, target hardening, investigating suspicious packages that arrive in the mail, or improving emergency response capabilities so they’re prepared to minimize the damage if something happens.

On the other hand, when the local police get too involved in homeland security, which emphasizes surveillance, identification and investigation of particular people suspected of terrorism, this is often done at the expense of community policing, Thacher says. In policing, “homeland security” refers to police activities designed to prevent or respond to terrorism, whereas “community policing” emphasizes more traditional proactive policing, problem solving and community partnerships.

Toward the end of 2001, the Department of Justice initiated a voluntary interview project focused on about 5,000 Middle Eastern males holding temporary U.S. visas from countries where Al-Qaeda was known to have a strong terrorist presence. DOJ asked local police departments like the one in Dearborn to help do the interviews, hoping these males would voluntarily provide information that might be useful in the new war on terror.

“Not surprisingly, that move was a big source of tension between the Dearborn police and the Arab-American community,” Thacher says. Many Arab-Americans believed the interviews were a form of ethnic profiling, and they feared heightened scrutiny from immigration officials. “Some people in the neighborhood found the interviews suspicious because they knew Dearborn police were working with federal agencies,” Thacher says. “The community wondered if they were being spied on. They weren’t, but local citizens weren’t sure.”

The federal request put Dearborn police in a difficult position. Officers were in general agreement with the federal plan, although most also understood and sympathized with the community. In response, Dearborn police organized working groups with Arab community leaders that were instrumental in changing several aspects of the DOJ plan, in order to reduce community concerns. In the end, Dearborn police agreed to help federal agents locate interviewees, and to accompany federal agents when the interviews were conducted. But local law enforcement officers declined to conduct any of the interviews themselves.

Thacher says terrorism investigation has to be predominantly a federal job because local police have a different job to do, namely focusing on community protection such as emergency response, target hardening, and preventative patrols, rather than terror surveillance and investigation.

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