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Q & A

‘Terrorism is Local’

December 6, 2012 07:50:49 am

Photo CBP Photography, via Flickr

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the super-agency formed in the aftermath of 9-11, impacts millions of Americans every day. With more than 240,000 employees, its responsibilities range from aviation and border security to emergency response, and it encompasses agencies as varied as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Secret Service.

Yet, remarkably, this crucial branch of government has just one research criminologist on its staff. He’s Richard Legault, who earned his PH.D, in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Albany (New York) school of criminal justice.

His formal title at DHS is Program Manager for Social and Behavioral Science.

In a telephone chat with Cara Tabachnick, TCR Managing Editor, Legault discussed how research on the motivations of conventional criminals can be applied to the nation’s defenses against terrorism, and why he thinks the agency needs more criminal justice experts.

The Crime Report:  What brought a criminologist to the Department of Homeland Security?

Richard Legault: After (my Ph.D), I got a post-doctoral fellowship that was jointly sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). I didn’t know anything really about terrorism or responses to terrorism, but they were looking for a methodologist with a strong background in social science quantitative research methods. I had the experience of working peripherally with DHS people, and it made me a very good candidate for this job. I worked at START for about a year and half, and then stayed on as research faculty.  

TCR: Describe the role of a criminologist at DHS.

RL: There are some things I work on that I think anybody who knows criminology would recognize pretty quickly as traditional criminology, and then there are a lot of things that aren’t.  I give scientific and technical advice and manage a lot of research and development programs for different components of DHS.  I also (evaluate) performance on grants or contracts to protect taxpayers’ interests.  For instance, a federal law enforcement agency contacted the (DHS) Science and Technology Director because it was having a difficult time evaluating the effect of some crime intervention programs on local crime.

TCR: When you hear about DHS, you don’t normally think about crime or law enforcement. Can you explain how the DHS relationship has evolved?

RL: DHS has a number of local or federal law enforcement agencies that are components of DHS. For instance, the Coast Guard has a law enforcement mission. The Secret Service has a law enforcement agency. So does ICE.  Criminologists measure the effectiveness of crime intervention programs on a regular basis, but usually it’s for state and local offices. Here it’s on a federal level.

Criminologists typically don’t pay attention to security and security agencies.  But what security agencies are trying to do—secure a space or an area—(represents an effort to) prevent and deter people from committing crimes or violent acts. That falls in really closely with what criminologists know about crime prevention, situational prevention, and police-based crime prevention. State and local law enforcement get a lot of benefit when they work with us.

TCR:  Why haven’t criminologists typically worked in the security area?

I don’t know have a really good answer to that. I might be assuming a lot if I tried to offer one. But if you look through any of our mainstream journals in criminology and you think about what criminologists do and what they need to do, and where they need to publish for their career progression, security has just never been an area where people were able to focus very much. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Department of Homeland Security funds criminology research at university-based centers such as the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, headed by noted criminologist Gary LaFree; the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP) based at George Mason University; and the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, a research consortium made up of RTI International, Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina Military Association.

TCR: Is it because criminologists tend to act more reactively?

RL: I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think a lot of modern criminology is really concerned with problem-oriented policing, predictive policing, crime prevention and that type of thing. There’s really just never been a perceived need or even an audience for criminologists to translate a lot of what we found out and what we have learned in working with law enforcement and doing evaluation of those kinds of law enforcement programs, for the security community. But I think it’s really helpful to the security community. And when I’ve worked with (DHS) components that have a security mission, they’ve found it very helpful to understand what the evidence base is for what they’re already doing.

TCR: Predictive policing has caught a lot of attention over the past few years. Has DHS tried to implement some of these ideas?

RL: I wouldn’t say we were implementing anything that looks like predictive policing, but because that’s a cutting-edge scientific area (applied) in a lot of places, it’s something we pay attention to. For example, let’s say we have a federal law enforcement agency that is also responsible for protecting buildings or employees. They need to understand, just like state and local police departments do, what the best way might be for them to allocate their resources.

Let’s say within a three-block radius, there’s crime mapping going on by the local police and they see that there have been six homicides in the last month. On its face, it appears that is something that they should be worried about because a lot of federal employees work in that area and travel through that area every day. Where criminologists can be of benefit is to help with those analytics, help them understand the nature of those crimes, help them match that crime to their research allocation. In this case, for instance the six homicides were all related to armed robberies that happened within two or three blocks of the building where the employees commute every day between four and seven in the afternoon.

TCR: How could criminologists play a role in DHS terrorism-related activities?

RL: This depends on your opinion of what terrorism is.  Criminologists (are divided). Some will say that terrorism is really unique and that terrorists are really not at all like the criminals that we study: they are rational actors; they are not really impulsive. On the other hand, (others) are finding a lot of similarities that would really go a long way towards producing better policies. Situational prevention people and place-prevention people are saying ’look, we are trying to make it harder for people to do some sort of bad act, whether it be terrorism or some other crime.’   

Situational prevention will just make it harder for them to do bad things in particular areas. You start to see that, just like crime, and just like criminals, at least in the U.S., terrorism is local. Most terrorist acts and the preparation for them in the U.S. happen in a 30- mile radius.  Now the reaction of the government and the country towards acts of terrorism is potentially very different. But the things we can do to prevent these things, (based on) what we already know about crime, give us a really good starting point.  

TCR: Is there any crossover between conventional law enforcement agencies and the anti-terrorism work of the Department Of Justice?

RL: We do a lot of interagency work. In fact, there’s a lot of information we can share that’s probably useful if you think about the way that the Department of Justice works. We also, have an interest in law enforcement and technology.  First responders come from many agencies, from local law enforcement fire departments. We are all interested in justice.  At DHS we study the social science of how people react and behave in emergencies.

TCR: Are you finding anything interesting?

RL: Especially in New York, we are finding a lot of work to do. There are a lot of ways to communicate proper information and emergency information to different groups of people and different situations.

TCR:  Do we need more criminologists at  DHS?

RL: Criminologists have a lot of value, because we’re trained as multi-disciplinary and applied social scientists. I think there is a lot of great work we can do. I would really encourage criminologists to think about applying their knowledge, their political skills, their problem-solving skills and their experience to homeland security areas, whether that be in federal law enforcement, policy, or security.  However, criminologists who are trying to work with people in homeland security sector should be ready to explain what a criminologist is.

Criminologists really need to think creatively about the mission of the homeland security. 

EDITORS NOTE: For a critique of current DHS spending on law enforcement, see CJN article “$7 Billion Homeland Security Grant Include Wasteful Police Costs” HERE.

Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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