Terrorism liaison officers have been getting a lot of attention in the national press lately. But the bottom line of what they do is basically old-fashioned police work, according to the state police coordinating the effort in Arizona.
The TLOs, as they are called, keep their eyes and ears open for any suspicious activity.
The three-year-old program is part of the Arizona Department of Public Safety and its Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, the state’s intelligence fusion center. The 75 to 80 TLOs are specially trained police officers, firefighters and police crime analysts. They report suspicious behavior they see in the course of their jobs. The reports are put in the state database for further investigation, and could be sent to federal terrorist databases.
DPS Lt. Larry Perry, the man in charge of Arizona’s TLOs, thinks they are necessary. Although he admits their jobs include a concept that all police officers and firefighters should follow, he says TLOs have learned a lot more than that during 40 hours of special training.
“This is situational awareness where people who work in critical infrastructures throughout the state are reporting suspicious activities,” Perry said. “TLOs are not getting information on private citizens in their homes. This is a speciality unit that links TLOs together for the purpose of reporting suspicious activity.”
Perry said TLOs in Arizona have reported theft of military clothing, police or fire uniforms and equipment. He added that TLOs are deployed to large public gatherings of 500 or more people where the potential for terrorism exists so they can assist law enforcement officials.
“If we were to see one person taking a lot of pictures of the power plant at Palo Verde (nuclear plant), that could be a terrorist opportunity,” Perry said.
The program has received four federal and state grants ranging from $200,000 to $500,000, according to Perry. They range from 24 months to 36 months.
Sgt. Brent Olson, a member of the Mesa Police Department emergency services and counter terrorism teams, is a TLO. He believes the program provides an important link between law enforcement and fire protection agencies.
“A lot of it is straight-up crime prevention, but with a twist,” Olson said.
“We’re focused with speciality other units. Something may happen here in Mesa and TLOs can work their counterparts in other cities to check if there’s anything going on there. We can contact each other directly and share information. We don’t have to go through others as we might have had to do. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good program.”
Perry scoffs at the notion that the program may be likened to snooping.
“It’s not 'Big Brother’ at all, but I can see that the ACLU might have a problem with it,” he said.
Alessandra Soler Meetze , executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her concern is the program might give inexperienced or undertrained volunteers the opportunity to target people because of ethnicity or religion.
“What we don’t want is a policy that encourages non-law enforcement personnel to keep tabs on their neighbors,” Meetze said. “This sounds like good police work and smart profiling based on behavior rather than racial or ethnic factors. The policy clearly targets behavior. We just need to keep tabs on DPS to make sure their officers and volunteers in practice don’t cross the line and begin replacing suspicious activity with skin color when targeting individuals.”
Perry said the reporting of suspicious information by TLOs is based upon suspicious activities and incidents, not on race or religious preference.
Suspicious activity is defined in TLO training as behavior that could lead to terrorism, such as taking photos of no apparent aesthetic value, making measurements or notes, espousing extremist beliefs or conversing in code, according to a draft Department of Justice/Major Cities Chiefs Association document.