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‘You’d feel better,’ says Utah’s top cop if the public knew all the ways Utah is battling terrorism

When the subject is protection from terrorism, Jess Anderson, director of the Utah Department of Public Safety, is the state’s watchdog

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Jess Anderson, Utah’s Commissioner of Public Safety, is photographed in his office at the Utah Department of Public Safety building in Taylorsville on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Twenty-one years ago, when Jess Anderson was a 25-year-old rookie Utah Highway Patrol trooper going through motorcycle training at the E Center parking lot, he remembers looking at the sky and noticing how quiet it was up there.

They were directly underneath the flight path for planes coming to and leaving the Salt Lake Airport, so something wasn’t right.

At home earlier that morning, he’d watched on TV the airliner crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. He left before the second plane hit the south tower and both buildings collapsed, killing 2,753 people and — as was now clearly obvious that September morning — closing all air traffic in America.

The message delivered by the silent sky has been echoing ever since.

“It changed forever the way we do business,” says Anderson.

Suddenly, law enforcement, at every level, had a new kind of crime to deal with: a silent assassin called terrorism.

In the moment, Anderson “had no idea; not a clue” what Sept. 11, 2001, portended for the future, either the world’s or his. He was happy just riding his UHP motorcycle and “wearing the brown shirt.” For as long as he could remember, he wanted to be in law enforcement, and now he was living his dream. 

The dream wasn’t genetic. Growing up in rural Delta, Utah, there was no family history of law enforcement, or much of a police presence at all for that matter. But between “watching cop shows on TV” and watching his dad rush to answer calls as a volunteer firefighter, Jess knew what he wanted to do when he grew up.

“I always had an affinity for it,” he says, “the draw of the lights and sirens and just helping others for whatever reason.”

He was barely more than a year into his UHP training when 9/11 happened. The effect on his career was immediate. Terrorist training became part of a peace officer’s regimen. Five months later, when the Winter Olympics came to Utah, Anderson wasn’t on motorcycle patrol — he was assigned to a security detail at the state Capitol and downtown area, looking for anything suspicious that might be terrorist activity.

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Cpt. Tanner Jensen, left, speaks with Commissioner Jess Anderson, Utah’s Commissioner of Public Safety, in the Statewide Information & Analysis Center at the Utah Department of Public Safety in Taylorsville on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

By that time, a brand new federal government entity — the Department of Homeland Security — was up and running, created to tighten the net that allowed the 9/11 hijackers to circumvent all law enforcement safeguards and step right onto those planes.

In the years since, Anderson has become intimately involved with America’s war on terror, first as he moved through the ranks in the Highway Patrol, next by his appointment four years ago as Utah’s Commissioner of Public Safety.

Among his many duties in the DPS, he is the governor’s Homeland Security adviser. Anything and everything terrorist oriented is his responsibility.

From his vantage point, he can report two things:

One, that the threat of terrorism “is real and the threat is always there.”

Two, that when it comes to combating terrorism, America is light-years ahead of where it was 21 years ago.

A floor above Anderson’s office at the Department of Public Safety is the Statewide Information and Analysis Center. There, it is the job of nearly a hundred people to process and analyze information received from all across the state, the country and the world.

“That’s their full-time job, watching information,” explains Anderson.

Every state in the union has at least one of these clearinghouses.

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Jess Anderson, Utah’s Commissioner of Public Safety, stands in the Statewide Information & Analysis Center at the Utah Deptartment of Public Safety building in Taylorsville on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“Before (9/11), states were independent,” Anderson explains. “What was occurring in a state wasn’t shared outside of that state; what was occurring within an agency wasn’t being shared with neighboring agencies. The FBI was all by itself, the DEA, ATF, the military, and so on. There were silos. That’s not the case any more. We’ve gotten rid of the silos. We’ve created these fusion centers whose whole purpose is bringing together local, state and federal partners. That level of communication was certainly one of the efforts that was borne from those terrorist attacks.”

Has the system stopped terrorist threats in Utah?

“Yes. We have had incidents in Utah over the years where actors have been taken out of the network,” he says, “where we’ve been able to prevent those things that would have caused great harm to people or places.

“It’s not a lot, but there have been some, even within the last couple of years. Most of them are sympathizers, giving aid overseas by providing either money or resources. They’re hiding right here among us.”

Would the general public feel better, or worse, if they knew everything the commissioner knows?

“You’d feel better,” he says. “I think if the average citizen knew probably half to the extent of what we’re doing, there’s a reason to feel confident, there’s a reason to feel that it’s different than it was 21 years ago — in a good way for us.”

And, he adds, Utahns would have reason to feel good about where they live.

“Sitting at the national level through my associations and affiliations, I see the challenges and complexities that different states have to deal with, and I always walk away feeling so refreshed that we live in such an awesome place. What I mean by that is law enforcement as a whole is very well supported by the public, by the legislature, by people who respect the complexities we have to deal with. We’re progressive, we’re innovative, we look ahead and solve problems collaboratively rather than infighting.”     

As another 9/11 anniversary comes around, the commissioner is asked if he’s nervous.

“You’re always nervous when it’s an anniversary,” he says. “You’re always concerned someone might want to use it as a platform.”

But nervous is OK. Nervous is good.

“One of the 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.”

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Jess Anderson, Utah’s Commissioner of Public Safety, is photographed in his office at the Utah Department of Public Safety building in Taylorsville on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News