Hate, the high-level law enforcement official noted, isn’t against the law.
Which makes the job of investigating threats and trying to prevent them from exploding into violence a challenging but critical job, especially in these troubling times of mass shootings – many directed at houses of worship.
FBI Los Angeles Assistant Director in Charge Paul Delacourt made these and several other points during a first-ever FBI-led panel discussion before Orange County faith leaders, just a few weeks before last weekend’s terrible toll of 31 victims of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
The two-hour discussion on July 17, organized by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and held at Christ Our Redeemer (COR) Church in Irvine, was part of the FBI’s ramped-up efforts this year to improve community outreach, especially in the African American faith community, Delacourt said.
Several members of the O.C. Sheriff’s Interfaith Advisory Council (IAC), which brings together members of diverse faith communities to engage with the OCSD to impact policy, improve mutual understanding, and develop relationships, attended the presentation.
OC Sheriff Don Barnes has made it one of his priorities after becoming sheriff early this year to take the IAC to the next level to counter an environment of hate in which crimes against members of certain faith communities and races continue to occur with distressing regularity.
The July 17 event was part of that effort.
“We started our Interfaith Council in Orange County five years ago,” Barnes said in his remarks. “It preceded some very difficult times between community relations and law enforcement (on a national level). We’re fortunate to have these relationships already forged …. It goes to show you that through relationships based on mutual respect and understanding, you can accomplish a lot.”
Barnes said part of the relationships forged through the IAC has prevented bad things from happening.
He singled out attendees at the July 17 event who are members of the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center (OCIAC), a vital tool in keeping Orange County safe from criminal and terrorist activity. The OCSD, in close coordination with the Orange County Chiefs and Sheriff’s Association, has direct responsibility for the overall policy and direction of OCIAC, one of 79 recognized Department of Homeland Security “fusion centers” set up around the country following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In 2018, OCIAC, which houses representatives from 16 federal, state and local law enforcement and related agencies, was named Fusion Center of the Year, Barnes noted.
Barnes urged faith leaders to reach out to OCIAC for security training, and he praised his agency’s relationship with the FBI, which worked closely with the OCSD on the deadly May 15, 2018 explosion at an Aliso Viejo day spa that killed one.
“That’s how the collaboration should work,” Barnes said. “That’s how partnerships should work.”
Added the sheriff: “I’ve learned one thing about community: If you want to get things accomplished and build bridges, you have to do it with the faith leaders, you have to do with the churches. We have to learn about each other and become advocates for change.”
The goal of the FBI’s Interfaith Law Enforcement Initiative is to find out what the faith community needs from the FBI and to explain the agency’s vast array of teams that strive to keep communities safe.
“No faith has been exempt from violence,” said Delacourt, who mentioned recent deadly attacks on places of worship, including the March 15, 2019 slaughter of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the slaying of six at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Aug. 5, 2012 by a white supremacist.
One attendee, identifying himself as part of the security team for a large O.C. church, asked FBI officials if they could send pictures of people the agency is “tracking” as possibly violent so he could keep such people off the church campus or call local law enforcement.
Delacourt explained how the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have to respect the right of free speech.
“We track and follow criminal investigations,” Delacourt said. “There’s a fine line between protecting the First Amendment and enforcing the law.”
Irvine PD Chief Mike Hamel, who joined Barnes and Undersheriff Bob Peterson on the panel, explained that if law enforcement has information about a person who has made a specific threat against a church, school – anywhere – the IPD certainly would let the targeted site know.
“Threat assessment is at the core of what’s being discussed here,” Hamel said. “It’s our bread and butter. And it’s very case by case.”
Delacourt’s colleagues on the panel, all from FBI Los Angeles, were Special Agent Miguel Luna; Supervisory Special Agent Joshua Stone; Special Agent in Charge Matthew Moon; Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Cyber, W. M. Harrington; Supervisory Special Agent Roberto Basteris; and Supervisory Special Agent Georgette “Gigi” Pickering.
Pickering runs the L.A. field office’s intelligence program and is responsible for Orange County.
“We have numerous agents and analysts and we also provide surveillance operations,” she explained. “We investigate threats and how to get ahead of those threats.”
Pickering stressed the importance of establishing two-way communication between the FBI and houses of worship, as well as the private sector.
“The first time we meet somebody should not be after something bad happens,” Pickering said. “We should already have those relationships established.”
Harrington’s unit oversees counterintelligence and cyber crimes.
“One of the things we see are attempts to influence public opinion online, and the targeting of community leaders,” Harrington said. “You may not think that (foreign agents) are interested in you, but they may very well because they want to establish connections and influence in the United States.”
Moon, who is in charge of FBI Los Angeles’ administrative division, said there’s a big push to hire special agents. The FBI has about 14,000 special agents but is down 800 positions.
“We’re hiring, too,” Hamel said.
The crowd laughed.
The July 17 event was part of the FBI’s Community Outreach Programs, which aims to improve the FBI’s understanding of the communities it serves and the threats they face.
Such programs, which include a Teen Academy, Child ID App, Junior Special Agent and many more, are designed to enhance public trust and confidence in the FBI by fostering the agency’s relationship within various communities, and to highlight the work the FBI does in partnership with local communities.
“It all comes down to community and the roles that we all play,” Hamel noted. “We collaborate on this very important mission. Information flows in both directions, and the faith community is part of that information sharing network.”
Hamel said the heart of communication is trust – one of the reasons for the Interfaith Law Enforcement Initiative.
“It may seem on the surface that the law enforcement and faith-based communities have very different goals,” Hamel said. “But if you really think about it and break it down, we’re actually on different pathways for the very same goal, and that is we’re all peacemakers.”