Sept. 11 attacks spurred long-term changes in public safety operations

TUPELO – Area law enforcers say the tragedy of Sept. 11 has caused a ripple affect within law enforcement that has made the country safer.
When the World Trade Center fell eight years ago today, the mentality of law enforcement across the country went from “that can never happen here” to “we better prepare ourselves before it happens here,” said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson.
Agencies all over the country began putting together terrorism plans, training officers and buying equipment in preparation for a similar scenario.
“That day changed the way we go about our business,” said Johnson, who was Lee County’s interim sheriff at the time of the attacks. “No way we would be training people to detect terrorism in Lee County and purchase equipment for the sole purpose of fighting terrorism if those building had not fallen that day. Those were just not things we thought about here. But now it’s a reality that it can happen if we’re not prepared.”
Billions of dollars became available through Homeland Security for agencies to buy equipment and anti-terrorism training courses for officers.
“We have surveillance equipment, computers and weapons that are designed specifically to fight against a terrorist attack in Lee County,” said Johnson. “That is proof enough that things were changed in the form of awareness and preparedness. No more being reactive when it comes to terrorism, but now we are a lot more proactive in preventing it and that’s what saves lives.”
Tupelo Police Chief Harold Chaffin said his department also has benefited from the lessons learned from Sept. 11. The department formed an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, or bomb squad, with Homeland Security money in 2007.
Because of Sept. 11, Chaffin said, having a bomb squad in Northeast Mississippi is almost a necessity now.
“We bought the equipment with the money we got from Homeland Security for the EOD team because we felt it was better to have one than to not have one,” said Chaffin. “When those planes flew into those towers it showed us all that no one was immune from these sort of things happening and we had to get prepared for the worst. Now we are more prepared than ever to deal with a terrorist situation than we were before.”
Union County Sheriff Tommy Wilhite also saw an influx of new technology.
“In the years right after 9/11, we could get any kind of emergency equipment we needed,” he said. “In recent years, federal money is harder and harder to get.”
Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar said even for small departments like his, the lessons learned from Sept. 11 were immeasurable.
“Basically we learned that everyone could be a target no matter the size or place,” said Tolar. “So we have had to get ready to handle anything and that use to be rare for small departments who use to have to depend on larger ones for help.”
Buddy East, who has been Lafayette County’s sheriff since 1972, said the disaster drove home the need for more caution in approaching potentially dangerous people or situations.
“We don’t take things for granted like we used to,” he said. “We pay more attention to what we’re dealing with.”
Wilhite added that “the biggest difference is all the NIMS (National Incident Management System) training.” NIMS, according to the FEMA Web site, is “a systematic, proactive approach” for agencies at all levels to use in addressing emergency situations.
Kelly York, chief deputy marshal for the Oxford office of the U.S. Marshals Service, said law enforcement personnel see each other less in competitive terms since 9/11.
“There’s more cooperation between agencies. All the federal agencies communicate among themselves a lot more,” he said.
York also noted that the U.S. Marshals Service has taken on new duties indirectly related to 9/11.
“Since 9/11, the FBI has focused more on domestic terrorism, and they don’t do as much fugitive work, so we have a bigger piece of the pie in the fugitive area,” he said.
Joey East, assistant police chief in Oxford, said upgraded training and interagency cooperation are two big changes since 9/11.
“Most of us never had heard of terrorists, and now we’ve received training in identifying and dealing with possible terrorists,” he said. “Anytime you need cooperation now, if there’s any suspicion of terrorism, there are no boundaries between local and federal.”

Other services
Law enforcers aren’t the only first responders to retool their thinking since Sept. 11. Fire departments had to as well.
Tupelo Assistant Fire Chief Thomas Walker said firemen no longer just think about putting out fires and rescuing people from wrecks.
“There are so many areas we have to make sure that are safe now,” said Walker. “We have to worry about chemicals and water supplies and things like that. Large crowds are also watched more closely now. Small-town America doesn’t have any skyscrapers to crash a plane into, but we do have schools and other populated areas. So we have to make sure those things are protected now.”
Communications was also an issue before the attacks. It was difficult for agencies to communicate with one another on different equipment, but upgrades have made most communication equipment compatible.
Paul Harkins, director of Lee County E911, said consolidating communication, which allows different agencies to communicate with one another, was a result of Sept. 11.
Johnson has taken it a step further. He put a communication system inside the jail so that if the main system at E911 goes down, he can still communicate with his deputies and other agencies.
Despite the horror of the attacks, Johnson said some good did come out of them.
“I hate something like that had to happen for us to realize the dangers of terrorism,” he said, “but because it happened, we are on the lookout for it in every aspect of law enforcement and that is going to make it a little harder for something like that to happen again.”

Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or danza.johnson@djournal.com. Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens also contributed to this story.

Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal