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Security in a changed landscape

Guardians work to maintain a sense of safety

By Joshua Lynsen

jlynsen@postbulletin.com

It's a warm September afternoon outside Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson's office, the kind of day that invites laziness.

Birds glide above a slowly flowing Zumbro River. Traffic moves routinely along nearby streets. The environment of downtown Rochester hardly seems to warrant the "elevated" status awarded by the Homeland Security Advisory System.

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Perhaps, in the hours preceding the second anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, there is what the national system calls a "significant risk of terrorist attacks." Perhaps not.

"We tend to think in terms of anniversaries," said Peterson, who remains Rochester's police chief two years after the unprecedented series of attacks killed thousands of Americans. "But there's no reason to believe the date holds any meaning."

Rather than focus on a particular day, or react to a particular threat, Peterson said public and private guards now look at the bigger picture.

"Having people feel reasonably safe in their community, be able to go to work, come home and be safe at night," he said, "that's what's important to people."

Back to basics

Consider it a back-to-basics approach. Rather than devise plans to help victims of an anthrax attack or car bombing, local safety officials now work to ensure such scenarios never occur in Rochester.

Peterson said local, regional and national security agencies now work much more closely than they did two years ago. Information is regularly exchanged, enabling officials to be proactive rather than reactive.

"I think the average citizen is much more interested in how we're going to keep them from getting hurt," Peterson said, "than how great our response will be if they get hurt."

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To be sure, emergency-response plans are in place. Police officers, firefighters and others are more prepared today than two years ago.

Peterson said newfound cooperation between public and private officials have revealed the city's "weakest links," or most vulnerable points. Though Peterson declined to identify those points, he said officials have worked to reduce those vulnerabilities.

Security among private institutions has also been enhanced. Mayo Clinic has implemented new, behind-the-scenes security measures, while the Rochester IBM campus continues to limit traffic.

John Murphy, a Mayo Clinic spokesman, said new technology has enhanced security. But perhaps more valuable is the heightened awareness among employees.

"There's been greater employee involvement in security," he said. "Staff members are more likely now to identify suspicious activity -- more likely to call security when they see something strange or are questioning something."

IBM spokesman Tim Dahlman said the Rochester facility's long-standing security practices, such as coded access badges, remain in place. He also said perimeter road blocks, erected two years ago, will stay up for the foreseeable future.

New world, new security

Security enhancements, including everything from improved communication to road blocks, are frequently touted as positive changes.

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Peterson said alterations made during the last two years have made the city, the state and the nation safer.

But at what cost? It's difficult to quantify. Civil libertarians decry the Patriot Act, a law passed to empower national security agencies. Some travelers still grumble about longer airline check-in procedures.

The many changes -- tangible or not -- all reflect a common theme. Psychologically, Peterson said, America has abandoned the insular ways that preceded Sept. 11, 2001.

"I don't think we'll ever see that again," he said. "Too much has happened since then to go back to the way things were."

Peterson, who sent his twin sons Jeff and Jeremy to the military, said the world was irrevocably changed that fateful morning two years ago.

"I think we have seen ample evidence the world is a different place than it was in 2001," he said. "The potential for acts of terrorism is very real, and it's one we're going to have to deal with for a very long time."

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