In the Spotlight

News & Features
How We've Changed - Law Enforcement
By Mark Zdechlik
Minnesota Public Radio
January, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

The Sept. 11 terror attacks have led to significant changes for police officers, even those who work far from Ground Zero. In Minnesota, law enforcement officials still chase car thieves and investigate thefts and perform the usual range of duties. But they have new duties related to homeland security. And they are noticing a change in the way the public regards them and their work.

Since September's terrorist attacks, police say much of their work has remained the same. Still, officers like Matthew Webb are doing many things now they wouldn't have dreamed of just four months ago.
(MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)

It is late morning on St. Paul's East Side. Police have a report of a burglary in an industrial area off of Payne Avenue along several railroad tracks.

Officer Matthew Webb is being dispatched to check out the crime scene.

"Frank" leads Webb through a gated chain link fence to the back of an old truck where several of his possessions were taken.

Webb checks unsuccessfully for fingerprints and collects other information for his report. "Frank" says he knows who took his stuff. Webb warns him; police will handle the investigation. It's a standard call, according to Webb, typical of any given day on the job.

In fact since September's terrorist attacks, police say much of their work has remained the same. Still, officers like Webb are doing many things now they wouldn't have dreamed of just four months ago.

"I can remember being assigned to actually be part of a detail where we watched one of our patrol houses and I remember asking my supervisor, 'What do you want me to watch for?' And he said, 'Well, I don't know,'" Webb says.

Over the past few months, Webb has also watched over state government buildings and municipal facilities like water treatment plants. But it's not just police commanders who are setting local law enforcement's agenda.

"The American people, obviously, if they see something is suspicious something out of the norm that looks suspicious, they ought to notify local law enforcement authorities. But at the same time they ought to take comfort in knowing our government is doing everything it can," he says.

Webb and others in law enforcement say Americans have embraced President's Bush call to be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary.

"I've noticed more people thanking us for the job we do and real appreciative that we're out there," says Washington County sheriff's deputy Terry Hyde.
(MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)

The heightened awareness of the threat of terrorism has flooded local authorities with calls about activity, which, until last fall, would not have attracted attention.

"Somebody sees somebody on the top of a building and the building is closed, they call the police now whereas before they would just automatically (think) it's the maintenance person. The majority of all of them have been unfounded," says Webb, who adds that the events of September have also forced police to protect some people who, because of their religious beliefs or ethnicity, have been singled out for harassment.

"I've worked at community centers and certain religions where we've had to actually work the area for security purposes because they've been getting threats since the 9-11."

For Webb, the biggest difference about his job since the attacks, is the way he is received by the general public. "Perception of law enforcement - in my eye, being a police officer - has changed a a lot. I've been thanked many more times since Sept. 11. In the five years I've been in law enforcement, I've had more 'thank-yous' since then than ever before," he says.

Northeast of St. Paul, in Stillwater, a group of Washington County Sheriff's deputies is briefed about stolen cars in anticipation of the afternoon shift. Scribbled on a white message board at the head of the roll call room are the words, Let's roll and President Bush's initials.

Like Mathew Webb in St. Paul, Washington County sheriff's deputy Terry Hyde says he, too, has seen a big difference in people's perception of law enforcement.

"I've noticed more people thanking us for the job we do and real appreciative that we're out there," he says.

Initially Hyde struggles to identify how his job has changed. "Washington County, it's a very quiet county and there's not really a whole lot of targets out there, but then again you can't be so relaxed to the point of being like, 'we're not going to be a target because I'm sure the people in the twin towers didn't think that they would be a target either,'" he says.

Even in a place like Washington County, that seems to be in the middle of nowhere when compared to New York or Washington, the business of law enforcement has changed in many ways. Hyde has helped people deal with anthrax scares, suspicious letters - one man with a numb finger he thought came from contact with a $10 bill he received in change from a convenience store. And when patrolling, Hyde says he and the other deputies pay very close attention to things that, until recently, did not stand out.

"Instead of just driving by and seeing the power plant, instead of just driving by and not paying attention to it, we take a look. We turn and make it a point to look and make sure there's nothing going on around the power plants or the bridges with the cars sitting on the bridges," he says.

Prior to Sept. 11, Hyde says a stalled car on bridge was not considered a potential bomb that could threaten a key piece of infrastructure. And even in Washington County, a place with with no tall buildings, Hyde says residents have called repeatedly with concerns about low-flying planes.

Until last fall no one, for nearly 20 years, worried about what ultra-light aircraft pilots were up to from their small hanger and landing strip just noth of Woodbury along Interstate 94.

"I mean they're practically just like hand gliders. But they fly really low towards the water tower because they use the water tower as a guide to get to their landing strip," says Hyde.

In addition to keeping officers busy, mostly with concerns that don't pan out as threats, heightened reliance on local law enforcement is bolstering the status of police, after years of public relations problems.

"It's kind of the reverse of the Rodney King," says former Houston, Tex., police officer John Parham, a political scientist and the director of the law enforcement program at Minnesota State University - Mankato. Already Americans' desire for greater security has lead to increased police powers, most notably broadened authority to tap telephone calls.

Parham says that trend is likely to continue.

"People are recognizing (that) these people may occasionally make mistakes but by and large they're doing something that we desperately need to survive in society. And I think people are just realizing that now as opposed to taking it for granted," he says.

More from MPR
  • How We've Changed: Nuclear safety
  • How We've Changed: Corporate security
  • How We've Changed: The students' view
  • How We've Changed: The role of religion
  • How We've Changed: Submitted commentaries