Crime Still Top Priority for Local Law

Criminal investigation may no longer be on the top of the FBI’s list, but the boys in blue who staff the country’s local law-enforcement agencies say they’ll fight the war on crime as fiercely as ever.

"That doesn’t affect us — we’re still fighting crime," Detroit Police Department spokeswoman Officer Alecia Thomas said. "They’ll still assist us, and we’ll still assist them."

FBI Director Robert Mueller on Wednesday announced the overhaul of the nation’s top crimefighting agency, saying that from now on, the bureau’s first priority would be to prevent terrorism in the U.S. The FBI’s other jobs, including hunting down criminals and countering espionage, have been knocked down on the bureau’s to-do list.

The new FBI guidelines come after the brouhaha surrounding the news that reports that could have ended the Sept. 11 tragedy before it began were buried in paperwork or ignored.

Traditionally, local law enforcement often works with the FBI to help track down interstate cases, make use of the bureau’s high-tech crime labs or pore through its exhaustive database. But the FBI’s new emphasis hasn’t fazed sheriffs, police chiefs or state and local district attorneys.

"They’re saying terrorism’s their No. 1 priority," Flathead County, Mt., Sheriff Jim Dupont said. "It should be."

Former FBI agent Dick Ault, now with the association of retired FBI and Secret Service agents known as The Academy Group, said that though there might be a breaking-in period with non-terrorism cases as personnel are shifted around, it won’t last for long and the public needn’t be worried.

"The state and local police are very capable of picking up a lot of the slack and they’ve done it for a lot of years anyway," the espionage and terrorism specialist said. "I don’t believe the bureau is going to ignore those areas any more than when it did in the late '60s when they beefed up the bureau to fight organized crime. What happened there was an enhancement in the form of task forces, and I think that will happen again."

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger said his department wouldn’t comment on the FBI’s "internal matter," but added that it will continue to coordinate its investigations with the bureau as well as with the many other law-enforcement groups it works with in its war with the underworld.

"We work with a variety of agencies, it just kind of depends on the situation," he said.

Right now, the FBI’s loss wouldn’t even exactly be devastating to Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, spokeswoman Jane Robison said. She said her office has limited interaction with the feds in the first place.

"There’s only one case I can think of where there was a person that we possibly were alerted to by, and alerted, the FBI," she said.

In Montana, though, Dupont said that while he doesn’t expect any changes in the help he gets from the bureau, losing the two FBI agents in Flathead County would come as a major blow.

"They’ve done a lot of good around here," he said. "They have a better link on what’s going on in Kansas, North Dakota and Texas with the militias there. When you’re going after drug dealers with chains from here to Mexico or Edmonton, we can’t follow that and the feds do. With a budget of Flathead County’s size, it breaks us to have go in and clean up a case. Just having a connection to get us into their laboratory is good. We’d be in deep trouble, and I think we’d see a decline in major case prosecution.

"But," he said, "I don’t have the impression they’re going to do that."