Brooks urges U.S. to step up preparedness efforts to protect against terror threats

Homeland security and citizens’ safety is the top role of the federal government, says U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN), an advocate for providing individuals and agencies with whatever tools are needed to successfully do their jobs.

Currently serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and as a member of the Communications and Technology, the Health and the Oversight and Investigations subcommittees, some of the issues Brooks is working on include efforts to strengthen the nation’s biodefense position.

It’s an area she brings a wealth of knowledge to from her public and private sector background experience in public safety, homeland security and counter terrorism. For example, Brooks previously served from 2001 to 2007 as a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana. She said her main priority as part of a team of federal, state and local law enforcement members, intelligence agencies and emergency responders was protecting Hoosiers by improving security and counter-terrorism measures.

In Congress, Brooks said she uses the knowledge gleaned from that position to inform her work around stopping future attacks on the United States and keeping Americans safe. And when it comes to biodefense measures, she has a bipartisan attitude toward what she sees as the main threats facing the country.

“From a legislative standpoint, I believe our biggest threats are complacency and an unwillingness to invest in the preparedness measures needed to ensure a strong response should our enemies unleash a weaponized virus in our communities,” Brooks told The Ripon Advance.

And with the reauthorization approaching next September for the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, Brooks said it’s important to ensure “timely consideration and passage of this critical measure.” The law is America’s “most influential policy tool to prepare our nation against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats,” she said.

In fact, the role of the legislative branch has been to ensure that the country develops the needed capability and capacity to safely prepare and respond to biological attacks on the United States, she said.

“It’s important to continue focusing on examining some of the existing challenges around reacting and responding to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats and discuss potential solutions that would ensure we are better equipped to investigate and assess biological threats,” said Brooks.

In 2015, Brooks helped establish a major solution for using social media during a terrorist attack or other emergency. The Department of Homeland Security Social Media Improvement Act of 2015, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2016, requires the DHS to bring together federal, state and local government and private sector representatives to improve communications and information sharing between the public and private sector during a crisis.

When the law enforcement community collaborates with the intelligence community, then future attacks are prevented, she said.

At the same time, Brooks also works to legislatively combat cybersecurity and has put focused efforts on safeguarding health care information against cyberattacks, as well as ramping up Next Generation 911 capabilities and 5G technology.

“Whether it’s medical devices, Next Generation 911 or 5G technology, cybersecurity threats must be addressed in order to ensure our communities are secure and free of cybercrime that could have potentially deadly consequences,” Brooks said.

This is particularly critical today during what she says is “an increasingly connected world, [where] innovation is growing rapidly and technology is now integrated in all aspects of our daily lives.”

The Internet of Things, for instance, is exciting because it presents vast economic opportunity for communities across the nation, said Brooks, “but we can’t forget that as technology grows, so does the potential for cyber threats.

“As we see the Internet of Things continue to grow, we must also increase efforts to address potential cybersecurity threats to the devices we use every day, such as medical devices, computers, cell phones, security systems in our homes, the list goes on,” she said.

Public safety advocacy
Brooks also understands that protecting Americans goes beyond cyberspace and includes addressing other, more personal challenges faced by everyday men and women across the country.

For example, having also previously served a year as the former deputy mayor of Indianapolis responsible for public safety, Brooks said she visited regularly with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

She said the department shared its innovative approach to addressing officers’ mental health and well-being.

“Police officers often deal with trauma on the job — including being caught literally in the crossfire of violent crimes; and finding and recovering bodies of murder victims, some of whom are young children,” said Brooks. “We must support our officers with mental health services that provide them the training and resources to protect their own emotional and mental well-being because sometimes, dealing with these kinds of unthinkable situations can lead to significant mental health challenges like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and even suicidal thoughts.”

What she learned led to her introduction in April of the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017, H.R. 2228, which would enable law enforcement “to better deal with the daily stresses of their jobs so they can best keep our communities safe,” she explained.

The bipartisan bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which approved it on Oct. 12. Specifically, H.R. 2228 would direct the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to share the best practices they use to help soldiers cope with trauma with local law enforcement agencies so they can develop similar resources to address mental health challenges faced by officers.

“It also makes grants available to initiate peer mentoring pilot programs, develop training for mental health providers specific to law enforcement mental health needs, and support law enforcement officers by studying the effectiveness of crisis hotlines and annual mental health checks,” said Brooks.

Additionally, Brooks is working to fight America’s ongoing opioid crisis, which she thinks federal lawmakers should be involved in helping to solve.

“There are many factors to the continued rise in the opioid epidemic across the United States, making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint one specific reason for why the crisis is worsening,” she said recently, outlining some of the reasons as:

– Medical professionals are over prescribing opioids to patients who then become dependent on these drugs;

– Young people in U.S. communities need to be better educated on the dangers of substance abuse so they are aware of the potential consequences;

– Shipments of fentanyl continue to infiltrate the country giving more Americans access to deadly substances; and

– The timeframe for treatment and recovery can take an incredibly long time, making it even more challenging in the federal response because there is no so-called silver bullet to fix the problem, she said.

“The federal government’s responsibility in responding to this crisis is to ensure that our community leaders — healthcare providers, first responders, state and local officials — have the resources they need to provide the necessary treatment options and support for individuals and families struggling with addiction,” said Brooks.

At the same time, federal lawmakers also must ensure that national policies, including prescribing practices and treatment programs, support detection and enforcement “so we can put an end to this epidemic and provide Americans across the country relief,” she said.

Bipartisan friendship
When asked to provide a real-life experience that deepened her commitment to bipartisanship work in Congress, Brooks reflected on attending 2012 bipartisan training for new members of Congress the December before she was sworn into office.

The training was hosted by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and she was able to meet other incoming members of Congress, including Rep. Joe Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

“We realized that we are both former prosecutors with a shared interest in workforce issues,” said Brooks, who currently is also chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee. “Before the training ended, we determined that once we returned to Washington, we would find ways to work together.”

And since that time, she said, they in fact have worked together on a number of initiatives, including co-chairing the Civil Legal Services Caucus; introducing the POWER Act, a bill that would help connect victims of domestic abuse with legal representation; and co-founding a prosecutor working group to focus on criminal justice reforms.

Reaching out across the aisle is important work, too, she says.