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New Concern About Bias In Counterterror Training

Army Lt. Col. Reid Sawyer, a career intelligence officer, runs the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. This week, at a New York Fire Department training center, Sawyer stood before a classroom of 40 fire marshals, chiefs and firefighters who are taking an 11-week course in terrorism. The evening's topic: the evolution of al-Qaida.

"So, the question is, when you are sitting in the firehouses, how do you make sense of the threat that is before you?" Sawyer asked the class. "How do you understand when you are reading the newspapers what it means?"

Sawyer has been giving firefighters, beat cops and federal agents counterterrorism training since 1993. He is considered an example of how this sort of training is supposed to work. So Sawyer has been watching with alarm the phenomenon of officials with limited experience selling themselves as terrorism instructors.

"You've got a lot of individuals who are not academically qualified to be instructing in these venues, and more importantly they are speaking with authority, which empowers the audience with knowledge that is not necessarily accurate," said Sawyer, adding that these short courses tend to stereotype Muslims in a way that just isn't helpful as officials redouble their efforts to fight homegrown terrorism and radical Islam.

You've got a lot of individuals who are not academically qualified to be instructing in these venues, and more importantly they are speaking with authority, which empowers the audience with knowledge that is not necessarily accurate.

This week, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) will preside over the first in a series of hearings about radicalization in the U.S. Muslim community. The hearings are already controversial, with opponents accusing King of singling out Muslims, and the congressman saying he is just casting light on a legitimate issue. It is against that backdrop that there is renewed concern about what local cops on the beat may be learning about Muslims and radicalization from trainers who aren't qualified to teach them.

One case study: Columbus, Ohio. Richard Bash, the deputy chief of the city's division of police, runs the department's Homeland Security Division. Last year, the Columbus Police Department hired a team that included a retired FBI agent to help teach police and local officials how to understand and recognize possible signs of terrorism. It was supposed to be a two-day training course but was stopped after the first day.

"The class was stopped the second day because what we found, the information being relayed was not accurate," Bash said. "They made some very blanket statements about who might be involved in terrorist activity. These individuals tried to make the other officers attending the class believe it was a very simple profile to follow, and in reality it is not."

He said they were basically stereotyping.

"That's not the kind of information that is going to make our cops or federal officials smarter about terrorism," said Sam Rascoff, a law professor at New York University who used to run intelligence analysis at the New York City Police Department. "That's the sort of stuff that is going to paint the wrong sort of picture and cause them to go looking in the wrong places for the wrong sorts of things."

That was exactly why Bash stopped that training session in Columbus.

There's a new report out Tuesday that tracks this problem in other places. The report, by the Boston-based Political Research Associates, looks at independent companies that provide counterterrorism training to law enforcement officials. The report claims to have found stereotyping of Muslims in those cases, too. The group claims that in the examples it looked at, taxpayers paid for this training, possibly with grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

"It has been a real challenge to link DHS grant money to these trainings," said Thom Cincotta, the author of the PRA report. "We know that taxpayer money is facilitating attendance of public servants at these conferences. For instance, we'll see municipalities cutting checks for $1,100 for one officer to attend a conference or a seminar."

One of the reasons this low-quality training is a concern now is because going forward, local cops are going to be taking a bigger role in the fight against terrorism. The Department of Justice has a new initiative that will take local tips and feed them into a broader database. The idea is to give law enforcement a more systematic way to follow up on new terrorism leads. So good local training — devoid of stereotypes — is vital to that.

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Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.