New Jersey’s geography, dense population, and wealth of critical infrastructure make it vulnerable to a terrorist attack, but state and local law enforcement officials are more prepared than almost anywhere else in the country, according to one of the state’s former attorneys general.
“Certainly there are reasons to be concerned, and New Jersey does have critical infrastructure in terms of chemical plants, nuclear plants, ports, [and] airports,” said John Farmer, who served as the state’s top law enforcement officer from 1999 to 2002.
“But I think what doesn’t exist here is a sense of complacency that may exist in other parts of the country,” he said. “We know that we could be targeted, and, as a result of that knowledge, we’re better prepared.”
After the 9/11 attacks, when more than 700 New Jerseyans perished, state and local law enforcement began working together and sharing information in a way the agencies never had before.
There are “centers around the country that are supposed to connect the dots, that gather information from state and local and federal law enforcement, and try to put together the puzzle,” said Farmer, who also served as a member of the 9/11 Commission.
“New Jersey’s [law enforcement] fusion center is viewed as a model around the country for how those centers are supposed to work.”
Nonetheless, Farmer said, because New Jersey sits between two large urban centers, it still has the potential to be targeted.
“We may not have the cities, but we have the people who work there,” he said.
Farmer said counterterrorism advances don’t erase the fact that law enforcement still requires the public’s help to thwart future plots, and he recommends the government reinforce its relationship with residents to become less reactive and more proactive in addressing terrorism.
“The general public has to be engaged as it hasn’t been to date. [We need] some kind of generalized public education about what to look for, what constitutes suspicious activity and how to distinguish that from racial and ethnic profiling,” he said. “Law enforcement has to make these judgments and they’re making them really in the dark right now.”