Mayors: We’re More Scared of Terrorism Than Ever
Amid an election cycle dominated by fear of global terrorism threatening Americans at home, mayors of dozens of cities across the United States told Politico they feel a growing apprehension about attacks on their citizens—and a mounting anxiety that they do not have the resources to prepare for it.
With attacks in Chattanooga, San Bernardino and Philadelphia fresh in their minds, the concerns of mayors from Honolulu to New Orleans, Syracuse to Los Angeles show that the American anxiety about security extends well beyond hot rhetoric of the GOP debate stage and has hit home in the country’s largely Democratic City Halls. But as worried as they are, the mayors express frustration at the way Congress and a number of front-running presidential candidates, Donald Trump in particular, are making matters worse by exploiting populist fears about immigrants, sabotaging local efforts to engage directly with Muslim and other minority communities.
This snapshot of thinking inside the executive offices of America’s cities comes from Politico Magazine‘s fourth national Mayors Survey, part of the award-winning What Works series. The survey of 73 mayors, the largest response yet, clearly showed that city CEOs at the turn of the New Year have terrorism on their mind: 81 percent say they are at least somewhat concerned about an increased terrorist threat this year. And an unusually large contingent—over one-third—assess a terrorist attack is more likely to occur in their city than six months ago.
The survey also queried the mayors on the economic issues, another hot-button municipal worry. Though not scientific—nearly three-quarters of the respondents were Democrat and 16 percent Republican—the answers of the anonymous survey revealed a surprising willingness to boost minimum wage as high as $15—even among mayors who have not said so publicly.
But terrorism and ways to combat it dominated the survey and created the most intense reaction, particularly among mayors of mid-sized cities who feel that they have become the new targets but still don’t have enough of the federal government’s attention.
“The federal government is not reacting quickly enough with adequate resources to inoculate mid-sized cities in middle America,” one mayor wrote anonymously. “ISIL and al Qaeda will soon figure out [how] to really strike fear in America by attacking cities similar to mine.”
Asked to identify the biggest challenges in counter-terrorism and attack preparedness, 49 percent of mayors highlighted the need for specialized training—protocols that ostensibly would come from state or federal officials—while 37 percent said that a lack of communication with state and federal authorities is proving to be a key obstacle.
But the heart of mayoral fears is money. “Overall funding” topped the list of biggest concerns, at 68 percent. Mayors are finding their budgets stressed by the price tag of counter-terrorism, with three-fifths saying they had not found a way to increase funding for counter-terrorism. Instead, numerous mayors indicated that in the face of shifting threats, their administration was expected to achieve more with less money. “You need to have an overall funding level and system to do this work,” one mayor explained. “With state funding cuts, it’s difficult to do extra work.”
“Police are the most expensive service a city provides,” wrote one mayor of a major city, in a direct message to Congress and President Obama. “The tremendous financial pressures that urban areas are under has made it difficult to provide additional resources…for this relatively new public safety issue.”
More than one mayor likened the manifold challenges of counter-terrorism to administering what amounts to a new city service, one they say largely didn’t exist just 10 years ago. “National security and local public safety has really merged to become one thing,” wrote one mayor of a major southern city. “At the same time, self-radicalized lone wolves are difficult to detect and can only be stopped by working with the community. And it isn’t the FBI or CIA in the neighborhood with their ear to the ground.”
Summed up one mayor, in an oft-repeated complaint: “If cities are supposed to prepare, cities need resources.”
Many mayors, such as Javier Gonzales of Santa Fe, described putting a new focus on active shooter training for public employees. Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga described how his city became a national model after suffering a terrorist shooting last year—and a resource for increasingly anxious city administrators. “We are happy to spread the lessons we learned to cities around the country,” Berke added. “We understand the immense challenges cities face and want to help those who are looking to adapt.”
Such mayors seem to have found themselves swept up in the shifting terrain of longstanding debates about civil liberties and the role of the federal government.
In the aftermath of 9/11, federal agencies diverted unprecedented resources, programs and manpower to essentially garrison large metropolitan areas. Such measures included enhanced inter-agency coordination, such as metro-based federal intelligence fusion centers, but also the creation of federal subsidies and contracts for military-grade equipment—transfers that became subject to increasing scrutiny as opponents mocked the federal government’s efforts to effectively militarize law enforcement in the fight against terrorism. In reaction to increasingly strenuous civil rights arguments, key provisions of the PATRIOT Act and the NSA’s surveillance programs were allowed to expire.
But recent attacks in less high-profile cities—and a bewildering, well-documented exodus of suburban and city teens who have attempted to join ISIL—appear to have galvanized some mayors to rethink their security obligations to citizens. In response to open-ended questions, mayors reimagined a robust and enhanced counter-terrorism partnership with the federal government, one they described as essential to thwarting imminent attacks like those in San Bernardino.
“Nationally speaking, we should consider a significant restructuring of the intelligence community and adapt to a structure like Britain’s MI-5—one centralized intelligence agency,” wrote Jim Kenney, the newly-elected mayor of Philadelphia. “There has been a proliferation of intelligence agencies in the United States, and I fear that is creating problems with information- sharing.”
“Let’s establish sustained, ongoing, structured, working relationships between local law enforcement and federal Homeland Security and other national security agencies,” wrote one mayor from a major mid-Atlantic city.
Mayor Stephanie Miner of Syracuse, New York, highlighted the need for “intense communication and coordination of public safety services between different governments and governmental organizations, including rehearsal of mass disaster situations.”
“Terrorists don’t pick their targets based upon the size of the city, but upon the value of the target,” wrote one mayor. “Distribute money by likely targets not city size.”
One mayor of a major southeastern city cited “[t]he need for federal authorities to involve local authorities early on in investigations.” Added Mayor Paul Dyster of border city Niagara Falls, population 49,000: “Good communication with federal law enforcement is essential.”
But mayors of varying constituencies and political stripes agreed on one key priority: diversity training and outreach, with a focus on tolerance and inclusion. Sixty-two percent of mayors said their police forces had a program to engage the Muslim community, and over a quarter of respondents cited “community relations and distrust of law enforcement” as a key challenge to counter-terrorism efforts.
“It’s prudent for us to establish real and sustainable relationships with immigrant and Muslim communities,” wrote Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “It is equally important to address those that are marginalized and secluded of all groups, particularly youth, to stabilize communities and lower the opportunities for recruitment and propaganda.”
Wrote one mayor anonymously: “Communities are still very much segregated. And public education needs to be intentional about teaching respect in a diverse society.” One mayor cited as a key accomplishment “strengthening our relationships with the many ethnic groups who live [here]. 1 of 4 residents were not born in the US and 1 of 3 are a person of color.”
National politicians, the mayors charged, are harming counter-terrorism efforts through anti-Muslim rhetoric. “Islamophobia is a huge threat to the well-being of my constituents,” wrote a mayor of a major Midwest city. “The president gets that, congress doesn’t.” Added another: “Some candidates for President and Congressional leaders don’t understand that good relations, tolerant policies, and community outreach is critical to getting tips and leads on terrorist activity and keeping our cities safe.”
Asked which presidential contender would be the worst for security, 51 percent named a certain billionaire real estate mogul.
“Donald Trump will be the worst,” wrote Mayor Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma, Washington, population 203,000. “Peddling hate, fear and xenophobia will not make us more safe.”
“Trump would be a disaster,” concurred Mary Salas, of Chula Vista, California, whose city has a population of about a quarter of a million.“He’d create terrible foreign relations—a dangerous climate.”
Still, some mayors took a contrarian view on where the real terrorist threat is emanating from.
“Austin’s experience with terrorism, whether it’s someone flying his plane into the IRS building or shooting at the police station and the Mexican Consulate, has been exclusively domestic in origin,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Said Kitty Pierce, of Eugene, Oregon: “I think having a national wildlife refuge taken over by out of state militia is pretty frightening. We may need to think of American terrorism in whole new ways.”