RAND Study Finds Law Enforcement Agencies Expecting Terrorist Attacks Are Generally Better Prepared

For Release

November 17, 2004

State and local law enforcement agencies that believe they are likely to face terrorist attacks are generally better prepared to respond than agencies less concerned about such attacks, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study is based on responses RAND received to a survey from officials in 208 state and local law enforcement agencies around the nation.

The survey found law enforcement agencies in highly populated counties are generally more concerned about terrorist attacks, and so do more to prepare for them than agencies in less populated counties.

For example, about 16 percent of state law enforcement agencies and about 8 percent of local law enforcement agencies in populous counties assessed the likelihood of terrorist attacks involving biological weapons within the next five years as being high. In contrast, only about 1 percent of law enforcement agencies in small counties said they faced a relatively high likelihood of a terrorist attack involving a biological weapon.

But no matter the size of a community, the study found that agencies that perceived the risk of a terrorist attack to be high were also those with more advanced preparation.

Despite the perception that rural areas are unlikely terrorism targets, the study says terrorists could strike there because “much of our critical infrastructure and some potential high value targets … such as nuclear power plants, military installations, agricultural facilities … are located in less populated areas.”

The RAND survey, completed in 2003, found that in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist strikes, state and local law enforcement agencies undertook a number of steps to improve their preparedness for terrorist attacks. Many—particularly in large counties—increased the number of people conducting emergency response planning; updated response plans and mutual aid agreements for chemical, biological, and radiological attacks; and increased spending on terrorism preparedness.

The RAND survey also found that:

  • The types of threats law enforcement officials are most concerned about involve chemical or biological agents, as well as conventional explosives.
  • To improve response capabilities, state and local law enforcement agencies want more training in conducting operations with other agencies, conducting tabletop or field exercises, operating in hazardous environments, collecting evidence, and using the incident command system that determines how first responder agencies coordinate their activities during an emergency. Law enforcement agencies also want more personal protective equipment and sensor technology.
  • Law enforcement agencies in populous counties express the strongest desire for more training, equipment and other types of support.
  • Nearly half of state law enforcement agencies and a third of local law enforcement agencies in large counties want better intelligence information from the federal government about terrorist threats or capabilities. Few law enforcement agencies in small counties want this type of information from federal officials.
  • Local and state law enforcement agencies need greater training to make them more aware of the appropriate use of personal protective equipment, the availability of counterterrorism training, and on who at the local and state levels is responsible for developing terrorism contingency plans.

Lois Davis, senior policy researcher and lead author of the RAND study, said: “By revealing what local and state law enforcement officials say they need to more effectively respond to terrorist attacks, our study can help policymakers at the state and federal levels determine what assistance to provide to law enforcement. The survey also provides an important benchmark that can be used by the Department of Homeland Security to assess improvements in preparedness and to better target federal funding.”

Many of these same issues were identified in a 1995 RAND study titled “Domestic Terrorism: A National Assessment of State and Local Preparedness.” Jack Riley—associate director of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment unit—co-authored both studies. Riley said: “The fact that we are still seeing many of the same issues years later underscores the need for frequent monitoring of progress. Allowing so much time to pass between assessments makes it hard for policymakers to gauge improvements.”

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, few local law enforcement agencies had experience with terrorist-related incidents. After the attacks, most state agencies and about half of local agencies were involved in responding to terrorist-related hoaxes or incidents, primarily anthrax-related.

In addition, most state law enforcement agencies and many local agencies (especially those within populous counties) have received guidance from the FBI about what type of information they should collect and pass on about suspected terrorist activities.

Other authors of the study are: Greg Ridgeway, Jennifer Pace, Sarah Cotton Nelson, and Paul Steinberg of RAND; Kelly Damphousse of the University of Oklahoma; and Brent Smith of the University of Arkansas. The RAND report is part of a larger study commissioned by the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The larger study was carried out by the University of Arkansas and the University of Oklahoma to create a national database of American terrorism. The report was prepared by what is now the RAND Homeland Security Program, which is part of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment unit created in August 2004. The new unit consolidates the work of three RAND research units: Public Safety and Justice, Science and Technology, and the Homeland Security Center. Printed copies of “When Terrorism Hits Home: How Prepared are State and Local Law Enforcement?” (ISBN: 0-8330-3499-5) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.