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Local policing isn't just local anymore

By Scott Bates

Publication: The Day

Published May 19. 2013 4:00AM

The job of local law enforcement officers has never been easy. Each day an officer steps onto the street and into the unknown. Sworn to protect and serve, Connecticut's local police officers have willingly put their lives on the line to fight crime and uphold the law. Yet the shocking shooting in Newtown and the bombing in Boston should put us all on notice: the nature of threats we face has changed forever. Connecticut's approach to public safety must adapt to face these challenges.

Since I became police commissioner in Stonington, Connecticut has been confronted with crises that foreshadow the kind of world local law enforcement must prepare for, and local communities must plan for.

In the first minutes after the slaughter at Sandy Hook, I called our police chief and began planning an immediate response. With no precedent in our region for this kind of horrific act, local officials in Connecticut had to find ways to strengthen school safety in an effective and sustainable way. In Stonington, we chose to work with school officials to update response protocols, increase police presence at schools and enhance infrastructure. After Newtown, school safety is a priority that cannot be ignored. It will require additional time and resources of local law enforcement. Yet funding to complete our plans and those of other communities is far from certain

The bombing in Boston and the subsequent manhunt for the terrorists taught us some key lessons. It showed the world that local law enforcement is often the front line in time of crisis - and needs to be prepared for such dangerous events. What the TV coverage did not show was the behind the scenes response of Connecticut law enforcement officers to the unfolding manhunt that involved lethal terrorists unaccounted for and on the loose.

The public now knows that the Boston bombers were planning to head to New York. I was in New York - trying to travel home to Stonington - when trains were shut down to prevent the terrorists' escape. It was a surreal experience, having to talk with our chief of police about placing local law enforcement personnel on alert for fleeing terrorists. Yet, that is a conversation that we now have to be ready for in a highly connected and rapidly changing world.

This was not the first time Connecticut law enforcement was included in counter-terrorist and homeland security operations. Just two years ago, police from Shelton and Bridgeport played an important role in the case involving the "Times Square Bomber." (Indeed, it was in Connecticut that the would-be terrorist was based.) As long as there is a credible terrorist threat against major U.S. targets, local law enforcement in Connecticut will need to have the training necessary to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

Another major challenge arriving with increasing frequency are natural disasters. In this past year I've seen firsthand how local police have been out in hurricane winds and battled through blizzards to respond to the calls of citizens in distress. Often it is the police who are first on the scene for a rescue from flood waters or a response to a medical emergency. It is the police who field the complaints and keep the calm after weeks with no power. After Hurricane Sandy, police deployed throughout our town to assist in recovery, and to provide a reassuring presence in the dark nights that followed.

A generation ago, school safety required only fire drills. Terrorist incidents on American soil were unforeseen and natural disasters were not an annual occurrence.

Today the world has changed. Challenges for local law enforcement in Connecticut have never been greater. There is a need to protect our children at school, to rapidly respond to terrorist incidents and be prepared to provide security and rescue capability in times of disasters - whether they are man-made or from nature. We must require better training, equipment, personnel and resources. And, as citizens, we should all be prepared to do our part, support law enforcement and give them the tools to do their ever more difficult job.

Scott Bates is a former senior policy advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee and is president of the Center for National Policy. He is chairman of the Stonington Police Commission.

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