Sept. 11–JOLIET — If the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had never happened, it’s likely law enforcement would still have seen changes during the last 15 years.
“But the level of communication and cooperation between agencies, that’s the biggest effect [of 9/11],” Joliet Police Chief Brian Benton said. “Not just terrorism-related information, but public safety-related information.”
Fifteen years ago, four passenger airliners were hijacked by members of al-Qaida, with three of them reaching their intended targets: the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. A fourth plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers tried to subdue the hijackers.
The attacks left nearly 3,000 people dead, and forever changed the way the country operates — especially in the way emergencies are dealt with, and in how officials work to prevent potential terrorist attacks.
Benton said the 9/11 attacks led to the creation of “fusion centers” used by many police agencies. Illinois State Police operate the Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center to coordinate information between investigators and emergency responders in Illinois and work with federal authorities. Besides potential terrorism, the STIC also tracks narcotics activity, violent crimes, internet crimes, motor vehicle thefts, and missing children.
Benton also feels 9/11, as well as school and workplace violence, led people to understand officers’ needs to carry patrol rifles in their cars.
“I think the public viewed rifles as a military item, but they have come to accept officers need better protection and firepower for what they could potentially encounter,” Benton said.
Federal Homeland Security grants have provided vehicles, equipment and training and the cameras police use to monitor the Des Plaines River, City Center and Chicagoland Speedway.
“They were put in for security, but they’ve helped with other public safety incidents,” Benton said, noting potential river jumpers have been stopped and detectives were led to a murder suspect by using the cameras.
The sharing of information also has improved during the past 15 years. Benton said police, for example, regularly share information with the FBI and customs in preparation for next weekend’s nationally televised NASCAR events.
The Dresden Nuclear Power Plan is also scrutinized extensively by federal and local authorities as a potential terrorist target, Grundy County Sheriff Kevin Callahan said.
“We get calls when someone sees strangers taking pictures of the nuclear plant or one of the chemical companies. It’s usually nothing, and it’s unfortunate [people are bothered], but we can’t take it for granted,” Callahan said.
Callahan agreed with Benton that information sharing is the biggest change in a post-9/11 world.
At the same time, a call about a stranger by the plant would bring a much more serious police response than 15 years ago.
While terrorism may seem a remote concern locally, the Illinois Army National Guard Armory in Joliet was targeted last year — but the would-be assailants were caught due to undercover work done by FBI agents.
Hasan Edmonds and his cousin Jonas Edmonds, both of Aurora, have pleaded guilty to planning an attack at the facility where Hasan Edmonds was assigned.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas, Hasan Edmonds planned to fly to the Middle East and fight for a terrorist organization while his cousin would come into the base during a drill and target the company commanders.
Hasan Edmonds told a psychologist he did not know about the planned Joliet attack until the day he and his cousin discussed it with an undercover agent and he “thought other sites presented better targets,” Jonas wrote in a federal sentencing memorandum.
“The evidence shows otherwise … [After the planning meeting] after [Hasan Edmonds] had a full night to reflect on the plan he actively helped craft — all three individuals traveled to the Joliet base to conduct surveillance,” Jonas wrote.
Hasan Edmonds could be sentenced next week up to 30 years in federal prison. Jonas Edmonds is also awaiting sentencing.
From the Will County Emergency Management Agency’s perspective, there have been two major changes since 9/11.
First, the EMA works with more agencies and entities than ever before, according to Will County EMA Director Harold Damron, in an effort to keep everyone on the same page in preparing for terrorist acts and other emergencies.
Second — echoing Benton’s and Callahan’s thoughts — Damron said the way various agencies communicate and share information has evolved to a more interchangeable, universal organizational model that police, fire, emergency managers and others can all use.
Damron said it can be a difficult transition, but he commended fire departments for always being ahead of the curve in incident command communication. Measures enacted by the federal government have brought them together on one operating team, Damron said.
“It’s been beneficial for us all,” Damron said.
With the increased focus on potential terrorist threats, one may think practice time for other emergency scenarios would be sacrificed. But that’s not the case, Damron said.
“We can’t just say that because we have terrorism now, that we can’t prepare for a chemical leak or a tornado,” Damron said. “Our challenge is to balance needs and priorities. But a lot of preparation is universal across the different hazard types.”
Damron noted that the Will County Health Department prepares for bioterrorism threats similar to the anthrax sent in the mail following 9/11.
The trend of mass shootings in recent years has become part of an overall set of threats EMA prepares for, along with state and federal partners, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. While other agencies work to prevent these incidents from happening, EMAs throughout the country are tasked with responding if they do occur.
Will County EMA does various planning exercises in which managers consider how they would respond to these shootings and other situations, Damron said. Next spring, Will County EMA will send a group of managers and county officials to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s training institute to practice for different terrorist attack scenarios. It’s a never-ending process.
“Preparation is not a finish line you cross,” Damron said. “It’s something we always try to improve upon.”
By Brian Stanley, Morris Daily Herald, Ill.
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