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Response to LAX Shooting Flawed, Study Says

Safety: Agencies' poor coordination tops the list of mix-ups. City Council will review findings, which suggest forming central police bureau.

October 07, 2002|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Numerous law enforcement agencies grappled with deployment mix-ups and communication snafus in the aftermath of a grisly Independence Day shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, according to a report to be presented to the City Council's Public Safety Committee today.

The document, requested by City Councilman Jack Weiss after the deadly attack at the El Al Airlines ticket counter in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, illustrates the jurisdictional complexities that surround crime investigation at the world's fifth-busiest airport.

Although city officials and security experts praised the response by numerous law enforcement agencies to the shooting, the report lists several areas that need improvement, both in crime investigation techniques and in the way the airport handles evacuations.

Some of these areas, such as the need for better coordination among agencies and more efficient sharing of resources, are not unique to the shooting, but would arise in many major incidents at LAX, officials agreed.

For instance, the sheer number of personnel who arrived after Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Hadayet gunned down two people before he was killed by an El Al security guard caused confusion, according to the report, compiled by airport Police Chief Bernard J. Wilson.

Ten agencies responded, including 425 people from the Los Angeles Police Department, airport police, the city agency that operates LAX and the FBI. Officials from the Customs Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the California Highway Patrol; and the Beverly Hills Police Department also were involved.

The response was so large partly because the event took place on Independence Day, when the nation was on high alert for terrorist attacks, and because the shooting had a possible terrorist link, the report said.

Members of the council's Public Safety Committee said they're interested in discussing how well the agencies worked together and whether it was clear who was in charge.

"It is one thing to say that the system worked well during an attack that lasted less than two minutes. But after all, this attack was brought to a close by El Al," said Weiss, who declined to discuss specifics of the report. "My question is, what's the best structure so that if an attack occurs in the future, local authorities can bring it to an equally swift conclusion?"

After the shooting, some participants spoke of tension between the LAPD and the FBI over which agency had jurisdiction in the criminal investigation. The FBI typically heads airport investigations that might involve terrorism.

The uneasiness that emerged between the two agencies during the investigation is evident in a report compiled by the LAPD recounting its role in the July 4 shooting. In the report, which the committee will also review today, the LAPD is critical of the FBI's organizational techniques.

"The majority of the involved special agents ... had limited job tenure and insufficient investigative experience relating to homicides," according to a memo included in the report and signed by Lt. Clay Farrell, acting commanding officer of the Robbery-Homicide Division.

To deal with agency duplication problems, the report proposes having a single check-in location and incident report for each event, as well as forming rapid response teams that would be charged with taking control of incidents at LAX.

City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said the panel will discuss whether criminal investigations at LAX would run more smoothly if there were a "centralized police agency" that combined the LAPD with airport police. Several officials, including Police Commission President Rick Caruso, called for merging the two agencies after the shooting.

To deal with communication breakdowns detailed in the report--including delayed transmission or failure to send information to all agencies--the airport police force is upgrading its radio system, said Michael DiGirolamo, deputy executive director of airport operations and public safety.

Coordination problems among law enforcement agencies were exacerbated by the fact that investigators mixed with thousands of passengers who were evacuated from airport terminals and went without food, water and restroom facilities for hours, the report found.

The city's airport agency has since put an evacuation plan in place that sets aside holding areas for evacuees from each terminal and addresses how to let them back in.

"It's one thing to evacuate a terminal; that's relatively easy. You stand up and say, 'Get the hell out of here!' " DiGirolamo said. "Our biggest problem was keeping people informed outside and getting them back in the terminal in an orderly fashion."

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Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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