In years past, “fusion” maybe didn’t mean much to law enforcement. It was more of a nuclear physics term, a word used to describe technology, or a maybe a name for a dance club or the music played inside. “Fusion” didn’t start working its way into the law enforcement vernacular until agencies sought to fight terrorism by closing gaps in information sharing post 9/11. Today, every state has a fusion center, as well as 22 major urban areas.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Fusion centers serve as focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector partners.”
Less than two years ago the National Fusion Center Association (NFCA) was created to give fusion centers a unified voice, which has been heard from its seat on the Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council and weighs in on the new terrorism alert system. Despite these accomplishments, NFCA Executive Director W. Ross Ashley III and other officers of the nonprofit organization often find they need to explain what a fusion center is, not only to the public, but also to fusion center customers.
“We are still working on reaching out to public agencies in the emergency management community and letting them know the value we can provide to them.” As a former career intelligence officer, Ashley knows it can take many conversations between an intelligence officer and an operator before they develop a relationship in which the intelligence officer knows what the operator needs, and the operator knows what the intelligence officer can give him.
He points out that moving intelligence information into the public safety arena is still relatively new, “We still have a lot of work to do.” Often in a negative context, Ashley hears people say, “If you’ve seen one fusion center, you’ve seen one fusion center.” NFCA embraces that notion. Ashley says a fusion center in Montana should and does look different than a fusion center in Virginia. Each has different constituency groups with different and varying needs.
An all-crimes approach
One constant among fusion centers is that while they were set up to fight terrorism, they’ve also evolved to fight all crime. “There’s not a magical piece of terrorism information out there that says ‘this is a piece of terrorist information,’” says Ashley. He quotes Mark Marshall, International Association of Chiefs of Police president and Smithfield (Va.) Police Department chief, who said years ago that terrorism information and public safety exist inside of “chump crimes.”
A report by RTI International and published by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions found more than one in five terrorist plots were uncovered during investigations into seemingly unrelated crimes like robberies, arson or parole violations, and encouraged training to ensure that ordinary crimes possibly connected to terrorism are recognized and properly investigated.
The report also said more than 80 percent of foiled terrorist plots between 1999 and 2009 resulted from observations by citizens or law enforcement officials, or from law enforcement investigations.
The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative and “If You See Something, Say Something” Campaign, or S4, are in line with this research. DHS’s S4 embraces the eyes and ears of the public as the nation’s real first observers, while the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s support for nationwide implementation of the SAR process embraces the fact that much of the information will come from state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement. Both are used by fusion centers.
In April, DHS announced that all operational fusion centers received letters from its Chief Privacy Officer stating policies have been determined to be at least as comprehensive as the Information Sharing Environment (ISE) Privacy Guidelines — a milestone for fusion centers.