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OPSEC in Law Enforcement: Gaining New Importance

Operations Security has always had an importance in law enforcement, long before either of the terms were even coined. At its oldest roots before they were called police, city guards roamed the streets. Criminals watched their behavior to gauge their competence. They knew which guards were dangerous and which guards were lazy. They watched for timing purposes, to know when the changing of the guard was and where guards were at various points in their patrols so they could plan to strike targets, especially thieves, when those guards were at their furthest point on their route from that target.


OPSEC became more important to law enforcement in the 20th century as modern investigations and forensics really came to the forefront in police investigations. New techniques in investigations led to criminals having to up their own professionalism. Crime scene investigation techniques and capabilities such as fingerprint and DNA identification led to new breakthroughs. As criminals learned about these new capabilities they took precautions to lessen their applicability such as wearing gloves and not leaving cigarettes with their saliva on the ground.


One of the worst cases in OPSEC compromise for law enforcement happened on February 28th, 1993 when the ATF launched Operation Trojan Horse. The tactical plan was to execute an arrest warrant on the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, and serve a search warrant on the Mt. Carmel compound. It should have been quick, surgical, with overwhelming force. Had they maintained essential secrecy they might have caught the Branch Davidians unaware and unprepared and avoided a gunfight. Instead, they failed miserably in OPSEC in multiple areas. The Branch Davidians were well aware and ready to repel an armed assault. The ATF lost four agents and had to have the sheriff negotiate a ceasefire because they were completely unprepared tactically to win that battle. A 51-day siege ensued and ultimately 86 people would be dead by the time the incident was over on April 19th.


Tactical OPSEC or perhaps Patrol OPSEC faced new difficulties in the modern era. In the seedy portions of cities it was not uncommon for criminal organizations such as gangs to have sentries posted to warn them of law enforcement activity in their area. Today that issue is exasperated by having instant access to police scanners. While once the scanner was a separate device a person had to buy, plug in, and stay stationary around, today any smartphone can download a scanner app. Now some cities overcame this and have special tactical units on encrypted digital channels. The sentry issue still exists. Except today the sentry does not have to be a designated person running to tell their friends. A mass text can warn everyone in the area. Criminals can scatter and evidence can be destroyed before officers can secure the scene.


The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 once again showed a new need for OPSEC, this time for the entire public safety community. One of the patterns terrorists seemed to use time and again overseas was conducting follow-on attacks against first responders. They would detonate a bomb, draw in first responders, and detonate a second device, or follow up with another form of attack such as small-arms fire. This tactic was shown by our news media and was shared by our nation’s adversaries across social media platforms and other media such as al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. Our attacks here stayed pretty consistent with the more active assailant variety so we were lucky in that regard. However, OPSEC was important because had our enemies taken that route knowing how law enforcement and other public safety officials respond immediately to the right of bang would have helped them plan those follow-on attacks.

At the same time as we worried about violent Islamic terrorism like al Qaeda the conspiracy theorist community picked up drastically in America. The theory that 9/11 was perpetrated in full or in part by the US Government picked up. Then there was the rumor of secret FEMA camps. There was concern about the new powers the USA Patriot Act gave law enforcement. The term surveillance state started appearing. These concerns spread during the Obama administration. Concerns about restrictions or complete confiscation of firearms. Then there was the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014 that really concerned people about US Government overreach. Then conspiracy theories about the US military Jade Helm exercise in 2015 might have been one of the more annoying things we could not stop seeing on social media.


At the same time as we had radical Islamic terrorist concerns and conspiracy theorist concerns we started seeing the anti-police movement take off from groups such as Black Lives Matter. Police officers started being assassinated. Why? Because they were vulnerable. People realized the weak points and how to target law enforcement officers because they knew their routines and capabilities. Then the violent left-wing collective calling itself Antifa, short for Anti-fascists, took to the streets and began using masks and uniformity as a means to combat identification capabilities.


Under this latest administration concerns about anti-firearms legislation continues. We recently saw the huge clash in Virginia where people thought that anti-firearms legislation would be rammed through by a liberal Virginia legislature. But enough representatives listened to the will of their people and the assault weapons ban failed. But there is still a very strong rhetoric in both the left and right wings of the political spectrum about hatred for cops, whether it is the left-wing that hates the police for being the guardians of our capitalist republic, or it is ultra-right that perceives many police actions as violation of their Constitutional rights. It is a dangerous time for law enforcement officers.


The way an irregular fighting force wins is by attacking weak spots. Social media is rife with discussions of violence and how they will carry out attacks. They are looking for vulnerabilities in armored vehicles. There are discussions out there about constructing weapons such as explosively formed penetrators which burn through armor.


This is why it is important that our law enforcement agencies institute OPSEC programs and train their officers to have an OPSEC mindset. In our society law enforcement agencies have to balance transparency to build good will with the public with the need to protect investigations, sources, and the capabilities that will keep officers and citizens alive. These programs and training courses keep officers alive, increase effectiveness. Moreover, they are not expensive. They require self-analysis and changes in activities and routines to make your officers harder to anticipate and harder to target.


At Risk Mitigation Services LLC we implore law enforcement agencies to establish a formal OPSEC program, designate OPSEC officers and coordinators within their departments, and train their officers and non-sworn personnel in the importance of OPSEC. Here at Risk Mitigation Services LLC we are proud to have the subject matter expertise to help your agency develop its own self-sufficient program to ensure the maximum protection of operations and officers while not impairing your capability to be transparent with the public and have strong communication with the citizens you serve.

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