Aided by digital billboards posted nationally, the FBI has thus far received more than 200,000 tips, opened more than 500 investigations, and made 70 arrests tied to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The government and the public are grateful for this outpouring of public support in finding those responsible for the insurrection, but this is atypical. Of course, public tips about the Capitol attack have been made easier by this being retrospective (friends and family members are reporting on people they know participated in a crime), by round the clock news coverage and by the large number of social media posts by the attackers themselves.
Studies have shown that in three out of four of cases of terrorism or other mass attacks, family members, friends, or co-workers suspected something serious was awry. It appears this was likely the case for some family members of the Capitol attack suspects too. Unfortunately, in most cases, these persons do not come forward in time to stop the attack.
The public and law enforcement want to prevent attacks from happening in the first place. Prevention involves getting persons to share information on an event that has not yet happened, for a threat that is only a possibility, and to most not even imaginable. To do so, the government needs to strengthen the country’s toolkit for prevention.
One person who did come forward before the Jan. 6 attack was 18-year-old Jackson Reffitt, whose father, Guy, is in a right-wing militia and told him he was about to “do something really big.” The son said, “I didn’t know what he was going to do, so I just did anything possible just to be on the safe side.” Jackson notified the FBI, who on Jan. 6, returned his call. Jackson’s father, not knowing his son had already reported him weeks earlier, told him that he’d be a traitor if he did so and that “traitors get shot.”
What Jackson did was brave, but research indicates such actions are uncommon. We are part of a research team funded by the U.S. National Institute of Justice to study what is needed in communities to help facilitate members of the public sharing information on potential acts of terrorism or targeted violence. Thus far, nobody we interviewed (both community and law enforcement practitioners, in Illinois and California) is very satisfied with current practices of community reporting.
Law enforcement officers told us they want community members to be more willing to share information, and when they do share, to do so earlier not later, and to give them more complete information. This could better help them to prevent attacks. They want the public to trust them more, yet they provide no follow-up or supportive services to those who make reports, such as Jackson Reffitt.
In contrast, community members told us they either do not trust law enforcement, they fear that more harm than good could result from coming forward, and are uncomfortable with the lack of transparency or accountability from the police. Many were aware of and reported experiencing racial profiling, police brutality and systemic racism. Many worried about the potential dangers of reporting, such as being jailed, deported, or murdered by the police.
What’s more, stark disparities in policing in some U.S. communities negatively impact their attitudes towards law enforcement and willingness to cooperate by sharing information that might stop or prevent violence. According to a recent poll, only 36 percent of Black Americans trust the police, compared with 77 percent of White Americans. This disparity is driven by historical practice of police brutality toward people of color. Hispanic Americans also report higher rates of fatal shootings, and lower trust in the police, also compounded by the fear of deportation if they are undocumented or have a family member who is.
Muslim Americans have a different but related experience of lower trust in law enforcement. In particular, post-9/11, it became clear that law enforcement targeted and over-securitized its relationship with Muslim communities, while overlooking the threat of right-wing extremism and white supremacy. Many Muslims Americans and some experts strongly oppose community-based efforts to prevent violent extremism, which they regard as a dangerous extension of the surveillance state against them based upon unwarranted religious profiling.
Adama Bah – who was arrested in New York when she was 16, detained for six weeks, and falsely accused of being a suicide bomber – says she is against proposals for enacting a new domestic terrorism law, and is worried that domestic terrorism practices will eventually end up being applied in discriminatory ways to people of color and Muslims.
To better protect them, community members told us they want community members who can be trusted advocates and liaisons to the police only when necessary. This coincides with the results of similar research from the United Kingdom and Australia, which recommended identifying “community brokers” who can receive tips and either address them within the community or responsibly share them with law enforcement.
Additional steps are clearly needed to strengthen our domestic terrorism prevention toolkit but they must be cognizant of past failures and abuses.
To ensure that community reporting is effective and does not trample on civil liberties and human rights, the institutions of law enforcement and national security need to take deliberate actions to acknowledge their embedded institutional racism and ultimately take measures to bring about more humane and equal practices, more transparency and accountability. This, of course, includes rooting out those within law enforcement and local government who have affiliations with extremist organizations, something you already see happening on a small scale in the wake of the Capitol attack.
Second, law enforcement and state and local government need to expand non-law enforcement social services and mental health services. These could be made available where appropriate for those making reports, for those who have not yet committed crimes but may be involved in extremist ideology and coming close to violence, and for those who have committed crimes and need rehabilitation. To prevent acts of terrorism, communities need to make available wrap-around services, including individual and family counseling and work and educational support. Currently, the United States has several small programs focused on secondary and tertiary prevention through counseling by former white supremacists, on-line engagement, formation of community-based multidisciplinary teams, and building a practitioner network. There is a serious need to expand these models to meet the demand, to develop new ones, and to conduct monitoring and evaluation to see if they truly work.
The Biden administration has taken some early steps in the right direction. Merrick Garland, nominated to serve as attorney general, pledged to address “domestic terrorism threats to our public safety.” The White House created the new role of special assistant to the president and special adviser on countering domestic violent extremism, and appointed Joshua Geltzer (former Just Security executive editor) to serve as it. The White House also ordered intelligence agencies to conduct a “comprehensive threat assessment” into domestic terrorism in the United States.
As the new administration builds its domestic terrorism approach, and if they hope to prevent any future attacks, it should pay more attention to building the country’s terrorism prevention toolkit and, in doing so, take special care to not overly rely on securitized responses to targeted communities, which could further exacerbate racial disparities.