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South Pasadena's Terrorism Fighter : Mayor Rare Blend of Politician, Lawman

January 25, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Talking to South Pasadena Mayor Lee Prentiss about his experiences on the Los Angeles Police Department is a little like sitting around the station house squad room, listening to an old pro regale the rookies with cop yarns. He's got anecdotes about hold-ups and hijackings and high-speed chases and big time shoot-'em-ups.

But between tales of zinging shots at careening escape vehicles and arresting hold-up men, the 20-year Los Angeles Police Department veteran talks about some larger concerns.

Prentiss, who became a detective in the criminal conspiracy section in 1974, wants to help the law enforcement establishment solve some recurring problems.

"You shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel every time," he said.

Law Enforcement Network

A year and a half ago, he founded the Tactical Response Assn., a networking organization for the police and military men who handle the high-pressure law enforcement tasks of the 1980s.

According to Prentiss, who would not divulge the size of the organization's membership, they're the specialists charged with storming a hijacked aircraft or coaxing a hostage out of the clutches of a gunman or shielding a head of state from snipers.

"The idea is to share information," said Prentiss, a bulky man, with neatly trimmed blond hair and suspicious blue eyes. "If terrorists take over a 747, it's the same when it happens in Germany, in Africa or in South America. If something worked in Africa, why shouldn't the San Diego Police Department have the same information?"

About 3,000 law enforcement representatives--including delegations from 15 foreign countries, Prentiss said--will gather near Washington next month for the Tactical Response Assn.'s second annual conference. They'll mull over subjects like "product extortion" and "SWAT team response" and examine the latest in James Bond-style weaponry. The central theme this year will be terrorism, said Prentiss.

In Prentiss' home base of South Pasadena, of course, terrorism is mostly something you see in headlines.

"That's one of the reasons I live here," said Prentiss, a councilman for 2 1/2 years and mayor since last April. "We have one-third the crime rate of Los Angeles. Some place, you have to have peace in your life."

Dressed in a well-worn cardigan, the 41-year-old detective/mayor, who still has the boyish, fair-and-square look of Martin Milner in "Adam-12," was looking very much at peace, drinking coffee in somebody else's City Hall office. (His own, like much of the rest of the building, is undergoing refurbishment.)

He is in the midst of "trying to retire" from his police job, he said. Prentiss, who won the department's Medal of Valor nine months after joining the force for chasing a gunman down an alley, has been on leave since last September because of injuries he sustained when he hit his head while getting into a squad car more than a year ago.

"I guess it's a matter of discrimination against tall guys," said Prentiss, who is 6-foot-2. "I injured the vertebrae in my neck and sustained a concussion." He will return to work Monday, he said.

Ask Prentiss about too many of his organization's specifics and he gives you the stony-eyed look of a security guard defending a jewelry store. He can't give you the who's, what's and where's for "reasons of security."

But he will give a little history. Prentiss got the idea for a world organization of tactical response specialists about two years ago, after sweating through some tough tactical situations of his own, he said.

Quick Response

"Things go down too quickly in a situation like that," he said. "You have to be able to pick up the phone and call Miami or Scranton or Houston. You have to be able to say, 'Look, I've got a group here from Texas. What do you know about them?' Do you know how long it would take to put something like that out on the FBI teletype?"

As a member of the criminal conspiracy section, specializing in bomb investigations, Prentiss had been active in the International Assn. of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, another networking organization.

That group had presented him with a distinguished service award for "organizing meetings and just generally supporting the organization," according to executive administrator Glenn Wilt.

But it was a narrowly specialized organization, said Prentiss, who was trained by the FBI in 1976 in "post-blast investigation" at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.

Using contacts he has developed during 12 years as a detective, he stitched together the Tactical Response Assn., which now has a paid staff of "four or five"--Prentiss will not be more specific--working out of an office on Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena. The organization is sustained by the $50-a-year initiation fees from members and by profits from its conventions, Prentiss said.

Time Had Come

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