Twenty-one years ago, when Jess Anderson was a 25-year-old rookie trooper with the Utah Highway Patrol who was doing motorcycle training in the E Center parking lot, he remembers looking up at the sky and noticing how it was quiet up there.
They were directly under the flight path of planes entering and exiting Salt Lake Airport, so something was wrong.
At home earlier that morning, he had watched on television as the airliner crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. He left before the second plane slammed into the South Tower and both buildings collapsed, killing 2,753 people and – as was now plainly evident that September morning – shutting down all air traffic in America.
The message delivered by the silent sky has been ringing ever since.
“It forever changed the way we do business,” Anderson says.
Suddenly, law enforcement at all levels had to deal with a new kind of crime: a silent killer called terrorism.
For the moment, Anderson “had no idea; not the faintest idea” of what September 11, 2001 portends for the future, either that of the world, or his own. He was happy to ride his UHP motorcycle and “wear the brown shirt”. For as long as he can remember, he wanted to be in law enforcement, and now he was living his dream.
The dream was not genetic. Growing up in rural Delta, Utah, there was no family history of law enforcement, or a large police presence for that matter. But between “watching police shows on TV” and watching his dad rush to respond to calls as a volunteer firefighter, Jess knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I’ve always had an affinity for it,” he says, “the tossing of lights and sirens and just helping other people for whatever reason.”
He had just over a year of training at UHP when 9/11 happened. The effect on his career was immediate. Terrorist training has become part of a peace officer’s regimen. Five months later, when the Winter Olympics arrived in Utah, Anderson wasn’t on motorcycle patrol — he was assigned security duty at the State Capitol and downtown. , looking for anything suspicious that may be terrorist activity.
By then, a brand new federal government entity – the Department of Homeland Security – was operational, created to tighten the net that allowed the 9/11 hijackers to circumvent all enforcement safeguards of the law and get on those planes directly.
In the years since, Anderson has become intimately involved in America’s war on terrorism, first when he rose through the ranks of the Highway Patrol and then through his appointment four years ago as Commissioner of Utah Public Safety.
Among his many functions within the DPS, he is the governor’s adviser for homeland security. Anything oriented towards terrorism is his responsibility.
From his point of view, he can report two things:
First, that the terrorist threat “is real and the threat is still there”.
Second, that when it comes to the fight against terrorism, America is light years away from where it was 21 years ago.
One floor above Anderson’s office at the Department of Public Safety is the State Information and Analysis Center. There, it is the job of nearly a hundred people to process and analyze the information received from all corners of the state, the country and the world.
“It’s their full-time job, monitoring the news,” says Anderson.
Each state in the union has at least one of these clearinghouses.
“Before (9/11), states were independent,” Anderson explains. “What happened in a state was not shared outside of that state; what happened in one agency was not shared with neighboring agencies. FBI was on its own, DEA, ATF, Army, etc. There were silos. This is no longer the case. We got rid of the silos. We have created these fusion centers whose sole purpose is to bring together local, state and federal partners. That level of communication was certainly one of the efforts that came out of those terrorist attacks.
Has the system stopped terrorist threats in Utah?
“Yes. We’ve had incidents in Utah over the years where actors have been taken off the grid,” he says, “where we’ve been able to prevent these things that would have caused great harm to people or things. premises.
“It’s not a lot, but there have been some, even in the last two years. Most of them are sympathizers, helping overseas by providing money or resources. They hide here among us.
Would the general public feel better, or worse, if they knew everything the commissioner knows?
“You’ll feel better,” he says. “I think if the average person probably knew half of what we’re doing, there’s a reason to be confident, there’s a reason to think it’s different than it was 21 years – in a good way for us.”
And, he adds, Utahans have reason to feel good where they live.
“Sitting nationally through my associations and affiliations, I see the challenges and complexities that different states face, and I always come away feeling so refreshed that we live in such a great place. What I mean by there is that law enforcement as a whole is very well supported by the public, by the legislature, by people who respect the complexities that we have to deal with. We are progressive, we are innovative, we look forward and solve problems collaboratively rather than infighting.
As another 9/11 anniversary approaches, the Commissioner is asked if he is nervous.
“You’re always nervous when it’s a birthday,” he says. “You’re always worried that someone wants to use it as a platform.”
But nervous is OK. Nervous is good.
“One of the most common sayings in law enforcement is ‘Complacency kills,'” says Utah’s top cop. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you just missed it.”