Police chief addresses reality of terrorism possibility

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The Palo Alto Police Department is in practice stages of a new program designed to combat the threat of a terrorist attack and strengthen the department by working with public schools and other community organizations.

“Terrorism is a legitimate threat, especially around here,” police chief Pat Dwyer said at a conference on Thursday, Dec 5, at Palo Alto High School. “And if you don’t think it can happen here, think about Oklahoma city. They didn’t think it could happen there either. Oklahoma city doesn’t have Stanford University, or Stanford industrial park, or Stanford shopping center, or the high profile that this community occupies nationally.”

Recently, two proposed emergency training exercises became part of the department’s agenda for 2003. The exercises are to be conducted in cooperation with Baron Park schools early next year to educate officers as well as community members. “One of them (the exercises) will be kind of a quasi-terrorist act, and the other one will probably be like a haz-mat (hazardous material) chemical spill,” Dwyer said. “The purpose of these exercises is for us to evaluate our own ability to respond to an emergency.”

Dwyer continued by explaining further measures the PAPD is taking to strengthen the department, as well as the importance of the simulations. “We practice like we play,” Dwyer said. “If we don’t practice this stuff–we’re not used to employing what we call an ICS system, or Instant Command System, and working with other departments both within and outside the city–when the real thing happens, we’re not going to be ready. That’s why we are carrying a third captain temporarily right now; to do emergency preparedness training for the police department.”

The department has also discussed issues regarding the small number of officers currently residing in Palo Alto in regards to the disadvantage it poses in case of an emergency. The number has increased from one officer in 1998 to eight officers in 2002, but Dwyer is still not satisfied. “Getting first responders and public works and utilities people here in case of a disaster, fire, flood, earthquake, terrorist act, is problematic,” he said. “The fact that they live so far away is a problem.”

However, Dwyer includes himself as an “out of towner.” As a resident of Gilroy, he recognizes that by not living in Palo Alto, he has hindered himself from better understanding the issues and concerns of the community, including the threat of terrorism. “I would have been a better police chief if I had been a part of this community and not just the hired help,” he said.

Despite speculations on Palo Alto’s current state of readiness in event of an attack, Dwyer notes that the Palo Alto department still has advantages. “We are very adequately staffed on the street because we have a strong union…we always have quite a few cops, more than most cities our size have,” Dwyer said.

By adopting the new program and continuing their overall community coverage, the PAPD hopes to be able to take control of a terrorist attack should the situation arise.