The Investigative Task Force

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The Investigative Task Force
The investigative task force is a relatively new entry into the arsenal of tools that law enforcement
agencies use to combat criminals and terrorists. During the 1980s and 1990s the task force became
well established as a vehicle to address important law enforcement problems. Although some may
argue that the task force is not really an investigative technique per se, most would agree that it is
an excellent method for dealing with significant criminal situations.
In an investigative task force, two or more law enforcement agencies formally join together to
address a particular criminal problem. The mission of a task force may be broad in scope, including
a general area of concentration. Such a task force might address violent street gangs on a city’s
north side ordeal with car thefts within the entire community. A city experiencing an increase in
murders might establish a task force to concentrate on this crime problem. Task forces are often
established to address fairly specific criminal activity. Such a task force might look into the illegal
activities of a particular group of bunco artists operating in the city. A task force of this kind might
also be created to handle a very specific criminal incident. An entity of this type was established
to deal with the mass murders that occurred at a Brown’s Chicken restaurant in Palatine, Illinois,
in 1993.
On occasion, various agencies conducting investigations against the same target will establish a
loose confederation in which each agency concentrates on developing evidence of crimes that fall
within its specific jurisdiction. A task force is much more than this type of affiliation. In a task
force, all of the agencies, regardless of their own jurisdictions, work together to develop violations
against the target. Everything that is developed is shared. Investigators from all of the agencies
work together on every aspect of the investigation.
A task force is much more than a mutual aid agreement between agencies in which the agencies
agree to assist each other in times of need. It is also different from memorandums of understanding
in which agencies generally divide a jurisdiction so that each agency has responsibility for
investigating specific portions of a criminal statute. A task force functions in a semiautonomous
state. Each investigator maintains his or her own agency identity, but works under the direction of
the task force leadership to accomplish its mission. Each task force member has similar arrest
powers and identical security clearances.
In an ideal situation, each member agency will designate personnel to work on a full-time basis.
In some instances, a small agency may not have sufficient manpower to do this. In this case, the
agency should designate a part-time investigator who can be counted on to provide a certain
number of work hours to the task force each week. Investigators assigned to work on a task force
should be the only investigators in their department who have access to task force information and
operations. There will also be certain ranking officials within each member agency who will
receive regular briefings on the task force’s targets and progress. Ideally, investigators assigned to
work on a terrorism task force on a full-time basis should be free from other assignments within
their agency. This is not always possible. In such a situation, it would be best that the officer’s
other assignment be somewhat related to what the task force handles. An example might be a bomb
squad detective who works part time on a terrorism task force.
A task force is a vehicle through which the various agencies in a specific region can share their
resources, talents, manpower, and legal authority to combat and resolve a specific crime problem.
Task forces are created to curtail wasteful competition between agencies. They are also created to
ensure that two or more agencies investigating a similar criminal activity in a given region do not
accidentally neutralize the others’ investigative activities.
Task forces usually arise due to necessity. Something must be done about a crime problem that
continues in an area despite efforts by the agencies having jurisdiction to resolve the situation.
Often the individual agencies are drawn to the task force concept because they realize that the
investigative techniques required to resolve the problem, such as electronic coverage, are not
available to their agency. On occasion, a department will attempt to organize a task force because
it desires to initiate a long-term project, such as an undercover operation, and it does not want other
agencies in the area to interfere with the project accidentally. This will not happen if all of the
interested agencies are working together.
Law enforcement agencies have traditionally worked together when the need has arisen. A
police department that pursues a fleeing subject across a city boundary usually knows that it can
depend on the neighboring town’s police to assist. A county knows that it can depend on the sheriff
in a neighboring county for help in case of a major disaster. Cities have always shared criminal
intelligence with other cities. Many law enforcement agencies cooperate in joint training exercises.
For many years police departments have also worked with their counterparts on aspects of criminal
investigations. Most of these have been short term and have usually involved each agency pursuing
the areas of the law over which it has jurisdiction and sharing what it develops with the other
agencies in the operation. The task force is a natural extension of this tradition of interdepartmental
cooperation. It is perhaps more structured, formal, and autonomous than previous working
agreements. The task force is a relatively recent development in law enforcement in the United
States. For the most part, task forces did not develop until the early 1970s.
History of the Task Force Concept
It may be impossible to identify the first formal law enforcement task force created in the United
States. It is likely that the phrase task force was not used when the first entity was created. It is
also likely that early task forces were not bound by any signed agreements. Instead, they relied on
a handshake and promises of cooperation among the members. In fact, one of the country’s oldest
terrorism task forces functioned for a decade with no formal written agreement. This task force
was actually created by individual investigators from various agencies who decided to end
bickering and duplicative efforts by agreeing to work together. The agency managers were, for the
most part, unaware of the working relationship that these investigators had formed until the “task
force” had achieved a major success. At that point, the task force received overwhelming official
blessing from the agency heads. By current definition, a task force should have a written agreement
signed by each member agency.
Although the terrorism task force may not have actually been the first task force created, it
certainly became the first task force to receive national attention. The New York Joint Terrorism
Task Force and the Chicago Joint Terrorism Task Force both produced remarkable results during
the early 1980s and solved a number of terrorist attacks. (It is noted that when first created, these
two task forces referred to themselves as “Terrorist” rather than “Terrorism”.) Early terrorism task
forces blazed the trail for the many task forces that were to subsequently develop throughout the
United States. It was the terrorism task forces that resolved the concerns that early critics of the
task force concept feared would happen. The worrisome issues included such factors as
jurisdiction, legal authority, vehicle use, security clearances, and funding.
The first terrorism task force was developed in the United States in 1981. In the latter part of
that year, task forces developed independently in New York and Chicago. Although they were
formed for different reasons, the result was essentially the same. The New York Joint Terrorism
Task Force was established in response to an armored truck robbery staged in upstate New York
on October 20, 1981, in which an armored truck guard and two law enforcement officers were
murdered. The perpetrators came from several established terrorist groups. The terrorism task
force grew out of a previously established bank robbery task force that was functioning in New
York at the time.
The Chicago Joint Terrorism Task Force started when local, state, and federal agencies in the
Chicago area joined to work against a common target—the Puerto Rican terrorist group known as
the Armed Forces for National Liberation (FALN). Its beginning differed from the New York
Terrorism Task Force in that it was not founded in response to a particular terrorist attack. Instead,
it was designed to prevent the FALN from conducting any further attacks. The New York
Terrorism Task Force succeeded in identifying, arresting, and convicting the terrorists responsible
for the brutal armored truck robbery and a string of earlier armored truck robberies. The Chicago
Joint Terrorism Task Force found the FALN’s clandestine safe house bomb factory and ultimately
arrested the FALN cell as they made final preparations for a bombing attack that was to take place
over the July 4, 1983, holiday.
The successes of both the New York and the Chicago Joint Terrorism Task Forces demonstrated
the value of task forces. During the next 25 years, many task forces developed across the United
States. These task forces address everything from terrorism to narcotics, gangs, fugitives, bank
robberies, major thefts, organized crime, white-collar crime, and many other criminal enterprises.
The tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, brought national attention to the joint terrorism task
force concept, and within a year terrorism task forces were established in conjunction with every
FBI field division. By 2011 there were more than 100 terrorism task forces in operation.
With respect to terrorism, the task force concept revolutionized how the United States law
enforcement community addressed this problem. Terrorism became a high-profile crime during
the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, although the term “terrorism” was not always used to
refer to this form of violence until the mid-1970s. The Vietnam War had galvanized various
disenchanted people into action. While most of the antiwar activity consisted of peaceful, yet
disruptive, protests, some of it involved violent bombings and arson attacks, particularly during
the late 1960s.
Law enforcement found itself unprepared to handle the situation. Numerous violent attacks went
unsolved because long-practiced investigative techniques simply did not work when applied to
terrorists. The fact that a bomb was detonated in a particular city did not mean that any members
of the terrorist group responsible lived anywhere near that city. Although the war issue had brought
divergent people together, various other causes were also soon being promoted. These causes
included prison reform, civil rights, communism, women’s rights, imperialism, and abolition of
the capitalist system. During the 1960s and 1970s, and into the early 1980s, several violent
clandestine terrorist groups flourished in the United States, attacking government, law
enforcement, military, and corporate targets.
For a variety of reasons, the U.S. law enforcement community had difficulty responding to these
terrorist organizations. One high-profile group, the Weather Underground Organization,
perpetrated almost 40 bombings during a 7-year period, including bombings inside the U.S.
Capitol and the Pentagon. No one was ever convicted of any of the Weathermen bombings, despite
the fact that numerous law enforcement agencies made concerted efforts to solve these attacks.
Terrorist fugitives, including Mutulu Shakur, Susan Saxe, Katherine Ann Power, Leo Frederick
Burt, Thomas William Manning, Raymond Luc Levasseur, and Cameron David Bishop remained
on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list well past the time that criminals normally placed on that list
would stay there. Although the Puerto Rican terrorist group known as the FALN perpetrated many
bombings during the mid- to late 1970s, the law enforcement community had no success in
apprehending these terrorists until the end of the decade. The only exception was one of the leading
members, William Guillermo Morales, who was arrested after he was severely injured when the
New York bomb factory in which he was working exploded in August 1978. Morales subsequently
escaped from prison and remained free until arrested in Mexico in 1983. Following his release
from prison, he was allowed to go to Cuba where he remains—still a U.S. fugitive.
Initiation of the task force concept in the area of terrorism was to be the death knell to many of
the most violent political activists in the United States. Working together, the various law
enforcement agencies proved that they could accomplish what they had not been able to
accomplish alone. Of course, the success was not only due to the task force concept. Changes in
how terrorism investigations were handled were also responsible for the success. However, these
changes in investigative approaches were fostered through the terrorism task forces.
What is Required to Make a Task Force Function
The key to a successful task force is cooperation. Each agency must enter with a willingness to
share what it has and what it will learn from conducting investigations while on the task force.
Task force agencies agree to become involved in organizing and planning investigations. They
agree to cooperate, rather than compete, with the other agencies on the task force.
If a task force is to function properly, there are certain factors that should be considered and
The member agencies must contribute their fair share of manpower to the pool of investigators.
This does not mean that every agency contributes the same amount of manpower or resources.
Usually in task forces, one or two of the agencies has a greater responsibility for the targeted crime
problem than the other agencies. These agencies should contribute more manpower. It would not
be reasonable to expect a small agency with minor involvement in the targeted criminal activity to
match the resources being committed by the larger agencies. Every task force member must
contribute some manpower to the task force. It would not be fair for an agency to hold token
membership on a task force from which they would access the fruits of all investigations yet
contribute nothing to the coalition. Ideally, all task force investigators should be assigned on a
fulltime basis. If a particular agency is so strapped for manpower that it cannot meet this criterion,
it should at least dedicate a part-time investigator to the task force on a regular basis. It is not
desirable for any agency to rotate personnel through the task force on a short-term basis.
Information Sharing
Member agencies in a task force must share information developed during task force
investigations. Furthermore, they must contribute any information about the target that their
agency develops outside of the task force to the overall intelligence pool. Examples of this include
information an agency learns from an informant or information discovered in their closed files.
The task force will not work if certain agencies are able to conceal the fruits of task force
investigations from other member agencies. This does not mean that the member agencies have
the right to freely spread the results of task force investigations throughout their own departments.
Task force investigations should be treated as “need to know.” Terrorism investigations are
sensitive in nature and some are classified. Consequently, information regarding terrorism task
force investigations should be kept within the task force.
Ideally the agencies included in a task force should have some form of jurisdiction with respect to
the target of the task force. While it is true that most local police agencies have very broad
jurisdiction to handle a variety of criminal violations within their geographic boundaries, the fact
is that most other state and federal agencies have restricted jurisdictions. Just because an agency
has a physical presence in a particular geographic area where a task force has been established
should not mean that agency belongs on that task force. Task force leaders must resist the
temptation to accept an agency onto the task force simply to obtain that agency’s resources. Serious
problems can arise from such a situation. The agency lacking jurisdiction is likely to attempt to
redirect the task force into areas where it has authority and interest that may actually be outside
the scope of the task force. In addition, task force member departments could easily come to resent
an agency with questionable jurisdiction offering opinions on how task force cases should be run.
Things changed greatly after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The president and attorney general
made it clear that all federal agencies were to work together in the war against terrorism and that
every effort should be made by federal agencies to work with local and state agencies. Departments
were encouraged to search their jurisdictions for criminal statutes that could be employed against
terrorists and to bring their expertise to terrorist task forces. As a consequence,the number of
agencies in joint terrorist task forces expanded greatly.
If a task force is to be truly effective, it is important that all agencies actually working in the target
area join the task force. One of the primary reasons for creating a task force is to eliminate
competition among agencies so that cooperative endeavors can be conducted without agencies
disrupting one another. Clearly, if one or more agencies continue to function within the target area,
but outside the task force, the effectiveness of the task force may be reduced greatly.
Vehicle Agreements
If a task force is to function smoothly, it is imperative that the various member investigators work
together as a cohesive unit. This may require investigators to drive each others’ vehicles. This is
especially true with respect to mixed surveillance teams, in which security may require
investigators to change automobiles in midsurveillance. Similarly, it may be desirable for
investigators to be able to switch driving roles when transporting prisoners or even when meeting
with informants. It is also likely that one or more of the task force member agencies will be able
to contribute a specialized vehicle to the common cause. The vehicle might be a surveillance van
or a crime scene truck. It might be a four-wheel drive vehicle or a bus. Regardless, it is important
that everyone on the task force who could use such a vehicle have the right to drive it.
Task force vehicle agreements are usually relatively simple. In essence, they place responsibility
with the agency of each investigator who drives the vehicle. In a sense, a task force vehicle
becomes the “property” of the agency whose investigator is driving it.
In a smoothly functioning task force, each agency will contribute whatever equipment it can. This
could include basic office items such as pens and paper or it could involve larger equipment, such
as photocopiers and facsimile machines. In many task forces the federal agency, especially the
FBI, will provide the office space and basic equipment to run the operation. This is true for joint
terrorism task forces, in which every such entity functions from FBI-owned or -leased space.
In many task forces, the various member agencies will install computer terminals within the task
force office space. This equipment allows the agencies …
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