In his State of the Union address, President Obama referenced last month's San Bernardino attacks, noting that "twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped."
However, the president did not explain how to stop this violence, whether it is inspired by groups like ISIS or other extremist views, such as occurred in Charleston, S.C., last summer.
We believe a promising way to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States is to build partnerships between police departments and communities whose members may be vulnerable to recruitment to violent extremism. Research we have conducted, together with the Police Executive Research Forum, suggests that community-police partnerships can effectively help communities build resilience against extremist ideologies and provide an early warning about individuals who may be headed toward violence.
Our research focused primarily on police efforts to build partnerships with Muslim Americans. Tips from Muslim American community members in the 14 years since 9/11 have led to the arrest of many perpetrators who were supporting a violent extremist organization or plotting violence. Because the vast majority of Muslim Americans detest extremism and share American values, there have been few successful terrorist attacks by Muslims in the United States since 9/11 and none of them has approached the scope and scale of 9/11.
Nonetheless, there is work to be done. ISIS continues its efforts to recruit Muslim Americans to engage in violence, and dozens of Muslim Americans have proven susceptible to these appeals. Muslim Americans have a strong interest in curbing the spread of this ideology and identifying individuals who are heading down the pathway toward extremist violence.
We have found that while many Muslims would welcome a closer relationship with their local police, there are trust issues that must be overcome. Many Muslim Americans we interviewed are suspicious of law enforcement agencies because they believe innocent people have been subjected to unwarranted surveillance; Muslims are frequently harassed by airport security and immigration officials, and pervasive societal discrimination has undermined their confidence they will be treated fairly.
Muslim Americans also feel as if they are unfairly assigned responsibility for preventing violence inspired by ISIS and al Qaeda, while similar obligations are not placed on non-Muslims to prevent anti-government, racist or other forms of extremism. In addition, some Muslim Americans believe that law enforcement has allowed criminal suspects to continue to radicalize so they could be arrested, instead of working with the community to direct them away from extremism.
Based on our discussions with Muslim Americans and police departments across the country, we believe there are a set of practices that police departments should adopt to overcome this trust deficit:
First, the most successful law enforcement agencies treat Muslim Americans as constituents, like all other residents, and work in partnerships on projects to enhance public safety.
Second, effective law enforcement agencies don't build community relations around a focus on terrorism. No individual or community wants to be treated with suspicion. We found that police don't use the White House's phrase "Countering Violent Extremism" to characterize community outreach; it gets the conversation off on the wrong foot by equating the community with violence.
Third, officers who conduct outreach and engagement are more credible when they are separate from police units that collect intelligence or investigate crimes. Communities will not work with the police on public safety projects if they believe they are being spied on at the same time.
Fourth, departments should invite community members to provide cultural awareness and basic language training to officers engaging with immigrant communities.
Finally, call on all community members, not just Muslims, to help the police prevent all forms for terrorism and political violence.
These practices, already in use in many jurisdictions around the country, will help build a firm foundation of trust. Once such a relationship is established, the police and Muslim communities can start to address sensitive topics of how to protect young people from the social media messages of ISIS and what kinds of conduct by individuals need to be brought to the police's attention.
These are difficult issues. Yet, if these conversations and activities prevent more young people from attempting to join ISIS and reduce the likelihood of additional violent attacks, the efforts will be worth it for Muslim Americans and their fellow countrymen.