YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Ports to Require Photo IDs

Security: L.A. mayor's task force, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, develops the plan after six months of effort.


After six months of effort, Mayor James K. Hahn's task force on waterfront security has devised a plan to protect the nation's busiest port complex: Port visitors will have to show a valid photo ID, such as a driver's license.

The system, to be implemented May 1, will not include the background checks on all dockworkers and truck drivers that Hahn called for shortly after Sept. 11 as part of a plan to protect the seaport from terrorist attacks.

"Some people are going to be disappointed" with the plan, said Capt. J.M. Holmes, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and a member of the mayor's task force.

"But it's an important first step in changing the culture of our ports, which right now are vulnerable," he said.

"Are we ever going to be getting a formal port-wide identification system? Yes. Eventually," Holmes said.

Hahn was unavailable for comment. But Troy Edwards, deputy mayor for special projects, said, "The mayor is very, very disappointed. This is not what Mayor Hahn envisioned. He expected the stakeholders to work together on an identification system with real teeth.

"The mayor thinks the task force and U.S. Coast Guard should be further along than they are now," he said.

"But this matter is not over," Edwards said. "They have to redouble their efforts, bear down, come up with an agreement and implement it."

Hahn assembled the 18-member task force in October to develop a comprehensive system to upgrade security at the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together handle about 5,000 vessels a year ferrying cargo valued at $200 billion.

The centerpiece was to be a foolproof method to confirm the identities of the 25,000 people who do business at the ports each day.

Of particular concern are the thousands of trucks owned by mostly independent drivers who haul nearly 5 million containers a year from the harbor to train yards 20 miles to the north and retail outlets across the country.

Authorities must know, Hahn demanded last fall, "who the drivers are, what they are bringing into the ports and where it came from."

Although Congress already was struggling to craft legislation on criminal background checks for waterfront workers, the task force hoped to be the first to forge procedures that would become a national model.

Almost immediately, however, conflicts over turf and politics emerged among groups that have long been at odds. Unions and employers could not agree. Neither could the cities and ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Local, state and federal agencies had differing agendas. And shipping and railroad companies wondered who would pay for it all.

The task force has yet to reach a consensus on two fundamental questions: Who will pay for a proposed identification system that will cost about $25 million to implement? Who will control its databases?

The panel's members also have tangled on a range of other issues.

The Port of Long Beach, for example, takes exception to Hahn's demands that Port of Los Angeles officials hammer out local security measures while Congress is working on a program that would apply to all ports nationwide.

"We're reluctant to put something in place only to have it superseded by a federal plan later," said Fausto Capobianco, spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. "We think that's bad business."

Separately, the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which is represented on the task force, opposes background checks as violations of privacy that could lead to dismissals of people who have worked on the docks for decades with spotless employment records.

'Failure Is Not an Option'

As if all that were not enough, task force members hesitate to make any changes that might slow commerce at the harbor, which supplies the Chicago area alone with 60% of its imported goods.

"One mistake on our part could affect the economy of the entire nation--failure is not an option," Holmes said.

"I don't want to be known as the guy who forced closure of an auto plant in Ohio," Holmes said.

Facing continued gridlock, and fearing complacency if action isn't taken soon, the task force has decided to "do something we could all agree on," said Los Angeles Port Police Chief Noel Cunningham.

"Reaching this point has been a very, very difficult and complicated process," he said.

"We're going to move ahead in phases, doing the simple things first," he said.

Under "phase one," all port workers and truck drivers will have to show a valid photo ID at existing checkpoints to labor near volatile and toxic materials, cargo vessels and military equipment.

In addition, the port police will be expanded by about 25% to roughly 70 officers, and a consulting firm will be hired to determine, among other things, the extent of the background checks that might be administered at some future date under "phase two."

"We will be conducting background checks on some people working on or near the most sensitive locations," Cunningham said.

"But it would not be necessary or practical, and could hurt relationships between union workers and their employers, if everybody got them," he said.

"We want to keep Big Brother from prescribing a program that won't work," he said.

Harbor Commission President Nick Tonsich, who was appointed by Hahn, predicted that eventually, "as we move along with phase two, all of the mayor's goals will be achieved."

Role of the Port Police

"Phase two will kick in once we reach a consensus over who will be in charge of the security system," Tonsich said.

"It may be more economical to let the Los Angeles Port Police do it," he said.

Given the competitive dynamics of port matters, no one can say if even that plan would be amenable to all stakeholders.

"Would I like to see these security matters move faster? Yeah," Holmes said. "Can we move more quickly on them? Nope."

Los Angeles Times Articles