29 May 2013

Police Interagency Cooperation-Just Why is it so Hit and Miss?

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The Boston bombing on April 15, 2013 gives a glimpse into the inconsistent police interagency cooperation that is needed to address not just terrorist activity, but other forms of organized or multi-jurisdictional criminal activity. Failures in information sharing between federal agencies and between federal and local agencies may have resulted in critical information being missed and the suspects successfully commit their attack. Rivalries between federal, state and local authorities complicate investigations; information gets lost, overlooked and even ignored as a result. It is as if these agencies forget that they are supposed to be on the same side and serving the same public.

What Drives This Rivalry?

One of the fundamental driving forces behind interagency rivalry, rather than police interagency cooperation is simply economics. These agencies must justify their budgets and are ever on the razor’s edge in the current economic climate to maintain current funding, let alone gaining additional funding to improve and upgrade their capabilities in response to policing needs. The agency that stands out through high levels of productivity, at least on paper, has a leg up on competing for scarce funding. Another agency disrupting the productivity, through usurping jurisdiction of cases that are on the edges of areas of operation can bring about rivalry and lessen cooperation.

Constitutional issues of federal jurisdiction versus state and local jurisdiction have been an increasingly challenging issue in the news. Gun laws, in particular, have resulted in jurisdictional court battles and resistance between federal, state and local police agencies. Additionally, increasing numbers of federal agencies being given police powers further complicate the issue of proper jurisdiction and authority. The ongoing legal battles will take years to resolve and present a particularly thorny issue in working on improving police interagency cooperation.

The remaining factor influencing police interagency cooperation is that of human nature. Stereotypes of under educated hicks running local police agencies or elitist federal agents that sits behind a desk when they aren’t interfering with local police and personal “fiefdoms” or exaggerated sense of authority cause unnecessary and preventable lapses in police interagency cooperation. These ego manifestations are the most common factors I observed in my career as a patrol deputy.

The Costs to Agencies and the Public

During my career as a Sheriff’s deputy on patrol, areas bordering other jurisdictions suffered more than once as a result of “turf” wars over crazily drawn jurisdictional lines. Some of these lines left a citizen’s front yard in one jurisdiction and the back yard in another. Depending upon the circumstances, such as the potential for positive or negative publicity or costs for the agency, there were either scrambling to obtain or dump calls for service in these areas.

Citizens unfortunate enough to live in these border regions experienced difficulty in obtaining resolution to problems they called agencies for. Simply determining who to call in an emergency and whether that agency would respond without being sent back and forth to the neighboring agency was an exercise in frustration and anxiety.

These jurisdictional disputes were inversely proportional to the level of leadership displayed up the chain of command, not to mention the boots on the ground. Changes in administrations and borderlines both instigated and in turn resolved the problems, much to the frustration or relief of citizens involved, as well as that of officers strongly committed to serving the public.

In recent years, federal, state and local police agencies have improved cooperative efforts through specific, defined missions, coordinated planning, clear jurisdictional guidelines and responsibilities, especially in the area of organized crimes like drug or human trafficking. When failures occur, it is often individuals within agencies that are the source of the difficulties.

Egocentric, dictatorial and power driven individuals can wreak havoc on police interagency cooperation, as well as within their own police agencies. The service provided to the public is forgotten in the effort to establish dominance. Lack of professional conduct and failure to respect skills another agency has to offer, whether the knowledge of local customs, culture and criminal element or federal educational, technological and equipment assets costs the public time, money, sometimes lives and even the attainment of justice.

Irresponsible acts by a Miami police officer, then an overreaction by a Florida trooper led to an ongoing dispute between these two agencies in 2011. Though the issue has been resolved, at least publically, it distracted from the missions of both agencies and tarnished the professionalism of both agencies in the eyes of the public. Unfortunately, this has occurred in other areas within Florida over the years, as well as other states and jurisdictional divisions, including the federal level.

What Are the Solutions?

While interagency disputes over legal authority or Constitutional issues must be resolved through courts and political action, many of the obstacles affecting police interagency cooperation comes down to remembering the basic mission of all police agencies, that of protecting and serving the public. Egos and personality conflicts have no place in protecting and serving the public. Building on the successful interagency operations and learning from those that weren’t successful serves as a foundation that has been done since the beginning of policing. Effective communication, clear expectations, responsibilities and boundaries all serve to improve efforts to develop successful multi-agency responses to the numerous challenges faced in today’s world.

What do you think is the greatest hindrance to police interagency cooperation? What factors improve police interagency cooperation? How do you think this issue affects the public? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.

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