U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said the investigation into the Austin bombings last month that combined the forces of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies might become a model for how major attacks on civilians should be handled in the future.
Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley on Wednesday testified before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, which McCaul chairs, about his experience working with federal authorities during the rash of deadly bombings.
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, who worked with federal agents after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent investigation, and Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham also spoke on Capitol Hill about how collaborations among law enforcement agencies have improved in the past five years.
“The tragedies in Boston and Austin are very different, but they reflect the continued progress we as a country are making toward homeland security,” McCaul said. “And at the heart of each are basic questions of coordination, sharing and mutual support. We must continue to learn from these tragedies so we can prevent the next one.”
Incidents from mass shootings to terrorist attacks over the past several decades have led law enforcement at every level of jurisdiction to forge closer ties and working relationships that allow them to streamline their response.
Federal authorities have stepped in to support local police in major cases across the country, including the mass shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas and the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
They did the same when the first of seven devices constructed by Austin bomber Mark Conditt detonated on March 2, killing 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House.
Manley said Austin police began collaborating with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI that day, holding a joint news conference hours after the explosion.
In the beginning, Manley said, investigators had no reason to believe the bombing was tied to a larger case, but they still relied on the ATF to analyze the blast scene, where authorities searched for biological evidence left by the bomber or components used in the devices.
He said Austin police led the investigation, but they also tapped larger federal and state agencies when they needed expertise or more people.
When the second and third bombs exploded March 12, the agencies formed a joint command center where decision-makers came together to ensure a fast response.
“I really do believe that in that command center, that everyone left their (agency) initials at the door,” Manley said.
Manley told lawmakers that investigators still have not found any links between the bomber and any of the victims, and that authorities believe they were selected at random.
Even so, he said the investigation is still ongoing, and that authorities still have around a terabyte of computer data to sift through.
All three law enforcement leaders stressed the importance of collaboration and communication with federal agencies, and called on lawmakers to fully fund the Urban Areas Security Initiative Program, which assists high-threat, high-density urban areas in preventing, responding to and recovering from terrorist acts.
“While Austin didn’t have anywhere near enough assets to handle this on our own, the public safety assets that we did have was in large part due to the Homeland Security grant funds that we had received as being part of a UASI city,” Manley said.
Manley said Austin police used such federal money to establish its regional intelligence center, which has been instrumental in identifying and preventing potential threats.
Federal money also enables authorities to conduct interagency training exercises to prepare for mass-casualty incidents.
Manley said the department last received Urban Areas Security Initiative Program money in 2010, and it now has to rely upon state homeland security dollars that it must share with a 10-county region.
“Our ability to purchase the equipment and provide the training that is so essential in this is challenged,” he said.
While money might be a challenge, the strength of the bonds among law enforcement agencies that converged on Austin during the bombings allowed the department to bring the case to close as quickly as they did.
“I can’t say enough about the collaboration that took place between federal, state and local officials as we worked to bring this to a conclusion,” Manley said.
He said the FBI’s special agent in charge in San Antonio, Christopher Combs, and the ATF’s special agent in charge in Houston, Fred Milanowski, pretty much lived in Austin throughout the investigation, and were in lock-step the whole way through.
“When our community was at its worst, suffering at its worst, law enforcement was at its best,” Manley said.