SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. — The police department in San Bernardino, Calif., site of the Wednesday mass shooting being investigated as a terrorist attack, is one of the only major law enforcement agencies in its region without a full-time presence on an FBI-led joint terrorism task force.
For years, the department had a detective embedded in the task force covering the Inland Empire — the two geographically vast counties east of Los Angeles — but earlier this decade, as a severe budget crisis enveloped the city, never replaced him following his promotion, sources said.
While the suspects in this week’s attacks, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, were not on the FBI’s radar — and no one has said that the massacre at a holiday gathering of county workers that killed 14 and wounded 21 could have been stopped — San Bernardino’s reduced role in the task force highlights the difficult decisions that local police leaders have had to make as they grapple with a shrinking rank of officers.
“That was the chief’s decision,” said a police source, referring to one of several former department leaders during a period of attrition and instability. “At the time, we all thought it would keep going.”
Instead, while the department has kept a relationship with the task force, including training and briefings on potential cases, officers have balanced any work with the group with other duties.
Asked about the issue Friday, the current San Bernardino police chief, Jarrod Burguan, who has been credited with increasing department morale, downplayed the significance of no longer having a full-time task force member working out of FBI offices.
“Sometimes we change where we put full-time resources, but we’ve never not had a relationship with them,” Burguan said. “I don’t know if there’s a need for full-time.”
The FBI’s Inland Empire Joint Terrorism Task Force in recent years has taken credit for thwarting plots including local men attempting to join al-Qaida and provide support to a group that hoped to kill Americans in Afghanistan.
In a news release announcing one of those cases, the local task force, a satellite of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, was identified as having members from all of the other large departments in the Inland region, including the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, Riverside Police Department and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, as well as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“It’s an invaluable asset to any community,” said Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman with the FBI in Los Angeles, noting that members from other departments “are deputized FBI agents” who work together with the bureau to chase leads.
She noted, however, that the task force’s training “is not limited to full-time members.”
“We maintain liaisons with all departments in the area,” Eimiller said.
San Bernardino police’s sworn officer ranks have shrunk from 302 in 2005 to 225 in 2014, according to FBI data. The city, with a population of about 210,000, has for years dealt with a severe budget crunch.
It was among the hardest hit by the 2008 foreclosure crisis and subsequent recession, and in 2012, filed for bankruptcy protection. That caused many officers to seek jobs elsewhere and has limited the hiring to replace them, all while the city has historically dealt with some of the largest per-capita violent crime rates among California cities with more than 100,000 people.
Jim Bueermann, a former police chief in Redlands, Calif., the smaller neighboring city where Farook and Malik rented a home – and kept a cache of ammunition and explosives – said he had two of his officers serve part-time on the joint terrorism task force during his tenure. He said the collaborations “are designed to be a conduit from the intelligence community back to the locals, and from the locals back into the intelligence community.
“It’s a really valuable part of the system,” said Bueermann, now president of the nonprofit Police Foundation in Washington, D.C. “But I will tell you, it is so hard to identify these people, especially if they’re self-radicalized.”
Still, the law enforcement source in San Bernardino said that, despite the fact that many terrorist attacks cannot be predicted, that some city police officials over the years had expressed concern about losing a full-time member.
“They never wanted to have something happen in San Bernardino and have egg on their face,” the source said.