A counter-terrorism program conducted in a building that overlooks the site of the Oklahoma City bombing is training front-line police officers from across the nation how to collect and report suspicious activity in neighborhoods and communities to prevent future terrorist attacks.
The 1995 bombing killed 168 people and injured hundreds more and was the worst terrorist attack on American soil prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Survivors and victims' family members will observe the Oklahoma City bombing's 16th anniversary on Tuesday.
"Failure to recognize warnings and indicators is one of the greatest pitfalls in preventing terrorism," said Cid, a former FBI counter-terrorism agent. "Every police officer collects. Some do it better than others. If we can improve the reporting, it may make the difference in identifying an act of terrorism or not."
Police officers receive the training in MIPT's offices in the Journal Record Building in downtown Oklahoma City, a structure that was heavily damaged in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and now overlooks a memorial on the federal building's former site.
Police officers who have attended MIPT's Information Collection on Patrol training course said the location of the training classroom adjacent to the site of the nation's worst domestic terrorist attack creates a heightened sense of urgency for them to perform their jobs well.
"Going through the training connected to the memorial brings an absolute necessity back to the training. It brings the meaning home," said Sgt. Scott Anger of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, a trainer at the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center.
"You're absolutely focused on the training, on the curriculum, because of the environment we're in. Being in that setting, it just changes everything," Anger said.
Participants tour the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum as part of the training exercise. The museum, which educates visitors about the impact of violence, is also located within the Journal Record Building but operates independently of MIPT.
"That just blew me away, so moving and so informative," said Lt. Jeff Rugel of the Minneapolis Police Department, commander of the agency's Strategic Information Center. "Doing that first puts you in a great mindset for the training to come."
Officer Leonardo Fernandez Sr. of the Traffic Skills Unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department said the menace of international terrorism that has gripped the nation since the Sept. 11 terror attacks has diverted attention away from the dangers posed by domestic terrorists like those who committed the Oklahoma City bombing.
Timothy McVeigh was convicted of federal murder charges and executed in 2001. McVeigh's Army buddy, Terry Nichols, was convicted of federal and state bombing-related charges and is serving multiple life sentences at a federal prison in Colorado.
"This is the one that scares me the most — it's homegrown," Fernandez said. "The road officer is the first line of defense that we have. We cannot let this happen again."
Anger said he has altered the counter-terrorism course he provides to other law enforcement officers in the Los Angeles area to focus more on domestic terror events as a result of the MIPT training course.
"You tend to lose sight of why we're doing it. That is brought back home so succinctly," Anger said of his experience at the institute. "It puts an added responsibility on your shoulders."
Funded by a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the counter-terrorism course stresses ways law enforcement personnel can identify and document suspicious activity without violating civil liberties and constitutional standards, said Charles Allen, senior trainer at MIPT and a 34-year veteran of the Oklahoma City Police Department.
"It gets down to the cop on the beat watching their environment," Allen said. "We encourage officers to get back in the habit of talking to people. We need to get back in the habit of being approachable. People are going to be coming up to them and saying, 'There's something odd about this.'"
A report released last year by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, a research group, said that, of the 86 executed or thwarted terrorist plots against U.S. targets between 1990 and 2009, 81 percent were discovered in observations by law enforcement officers or the general public. Tips from the public included information about para-military training, smuggling and surveillance activities.
In addition, the report stressed the importance of fully investigating potential leads and recognizing signs of potential terrorist activity during routine criminal investigations. Those investigations, together with suspicious activity reports, led to initial clues in almost one-third of foiled terrorist plots, the report said.
Vigilant reporting by police officers on the beat is an effective way to keep terrorists separated from their potential victims, Allen said.
"We've got to get between them and the bad guys," he said. "We need to get in the habit of listening for and watching for those things that will give us the opportunity to get between the match and the fuse."
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