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The Watchmen
An A-level unit deep within the Milwaukee Police Department is training a high-tech eye on the city, fighting crime and stopping violence before it even occurs.

Photos by Adam Ryan Morris

On an unseasonably cool but sunny Sunday last August, Capt. Jason Smith packed his family into the car for what was shaping up to be an ideal day at the Wisconsin State Fair. As head of the Milwaukee Police Department Intelligence Fusion Center, days fully free of professional obligations are rare, even precious. When Smith is away from the Center – a little-known hub of data and 21st-century policing that’s quietly evolved into a multijurisdictional dream team – his cell phone can go off at any moment. So no one in the family thought twice when it buzzed with a new message. The look on his face, however, alerted his three kids that plans were about to change.

After 22 years as a cop, with many of those spent as a homicide detective, it takes more than everyday street crime to break the reflective cool that dominates Smith’s disposition. But this, the message revealed, would be anything but a run-of-the-mill Sunday. “Oak Creek has a mass shooting,” said the email from Fusion’s watch desk, “multiple victims, possibly two shooters, area of Howell and Rawson, more as it becomes available.” Like a pinch at the onset of a pleasant dream, Smith was reminded of the world of threats in which he operates. And soon, his head was shifting into a keener, more efficient frame of mind – crisis mode.

Less than three miles away, panicked calls were flooding into the Oak Creek Police Department, and operators were struggling to make sense of differing accounts of a shooter and shooting, many told in broken English.

No other entity in the region was as well-equipped to make sense of – or respond to – this kind of chaos as the Fusion Center. Milwaukee officers and federal agents working in the office that morning fed updates to Smith, who had left his kids at home and was now doing triple digits on the freeway, headed for Oak Creek, juggling no fewer than three cell phones. He couldn’t help but feel like another shoe was about to drop, and he needed his best on the scene immediately. One by one, the pockets of negotiators, bomb techs, homicide detectives and analysts hummed with the familiar vibration of personal life interrupted. Whatever was happening, it was big.

In late November 2002, some 14 months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act into law. A cornerstone of Bush’s plan for protecting a still-reeling country from further attacks, the law formed an entirely new intelligence agency, the Department of Homeland Security, which would rely heavily on sharing information with local police. The idea was to prevent attacks by providing threat-related intel to these smaller agencies, which would pass along their boots-on-the-ground reporting in return.

Out of these goals, a new kind of intelligence apparatus arose: the fusion center. Devised as a mixture of regional and local law enforcement officials, who would take the lead, and federal agents and analysts in support roles, the fusion center idea quickly became a crucial aspect of national anti-terrorism policy. Local and state officials welcomed the concept and the potential funding that came with it, and scores began popping up around the country. Some were amorphous, loosely defined and lacking in clear objectives. The local partners often had broad leeway to structure the centers as they saw fit.

In 2006, the seed of what would become Milwaukee’s Fusion Center opened in the police department’s Central Investigation Bureau. Dubbed the Southeastern Wisconsin Threat Analysis Center (STAC), the unit’s mission was to monitor the region for threats of terrorism. But while the STAC hunted for signs of al-Qaida in Cudahy, it ignored street crime and had little interaction with the agency serving as its host.

When Chief Ed Flynn took charge of MPD in 2008, he recognized the STAC, having led the development of a similar intelligence center in Massachusetts. “When I came here, we had essentially what I had left behind,” he says, “a small set of highly secure rooms with a small group of people with great computers, who talk to nobody in the police department.”

He wanted something different for Milwaukee.

He’d been studying British law enforcement’s penetration of the Irish Republican Army and Israeli police dealings with the Palestine Liberation Organization. He’d come to believe that “taking down terror networks requires understanding that terrorists support themselves through crimes.” His vision for MPD was to create an intelligence division focused on understanding patterns of criminality and sharing those with the STAC. The two halves would function as one. And thus, in 2008, the Milwaukee Police Department Intelligence Fusion Center was born.

Technically, the Fusion Center’s halves remain two separate entities. But as they’ve learned to support one another, the line has blurred. Today, when someone in law enforcement speaks of MPD’s Fusion Center, it’s understood to include the STAC as well.

Since its inception, the Center has grown from the half-dozen analysts that originally ran the STAC to a cadre of about 55 full-time employees: cops, federal agents, prosecutors, emergency response personnel and analysts of varying stripes. More than a dozen federal, local and regional entities partner with the Center, and many maintain personnel there who are overseen by Capt. Smith.

With its cubicles, fluorescent lighting and bland tile floors, the Fusion Center might look like a telemarketing operation if not for the guns on its staffers’ hips. On the north wall, eight flat-screen monitors display news channels, the locations of recent gunfire, intelligence on current events and, occasionally, a good ballgame. On the east side of the long rectangular room are Smith’s office and an adjacent conference room where he spends most of his time. And on the west wall, there’s a secure door few people have ever seen beyond. It leads to the STAC and is completely soundproof, housing the “secret squirrels” (as Flynn calls them) who work on homeland security issues. In the event of a national catastrophe, the STAC has the ability to link up with more than 70 other fusion centers in the U.S. to coordinate a response.

All of the country’s fusion centers look and function differently. This is partly due to a lack of direction from the Department of Homeland Security and the need for centers to reflect the communities they serve, Smith says.

Although many fusion centers focus entirely on homeland security, Flynn has put Milwaukee’s at the very heart of his department’s crime-fighting efforts. Almost everything MPD does is informed by Fusion’s intelligence.

Also separating Milwaukee’s Fusion Center from many others is its capacity for action. Smith has pulled together a diverse team of vast experience and expertise, and when things start heading south, as they did Aug. 5, Fusion can respond in force.

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