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Scrutiny for L.A.'s Own Secret Police

June 15, 2003|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick, a senior fellow at USC's Annenberg School Institute for Justice and Journalism, is author of "To Protect and To Serve," a book on the history of the Los Angeles Police Department.

When the City Council and the mayor recently went toe to toe over the proposed hiring of 320 police officers, the fact that 55 of them would be assigned to the LAPD's counter-terrorism bureau didn't attract much attention. But there are plenty of questions to ask. Does the bureau really need more cops to seek out and frustrate potential terrorists in L.A.? What has the bureau been doing since 9/11 with the force it already has? Has it mistreated those accused or suspected of harboring terrorist intentions? Is it following California law, as required, or has it adopted some of the extraordinary powers employed by federal agents in their pursuit of terrorists? And who's keeping an eye on the department's most secret division, anyway?

These are not idle questions. Earlier this month, a U.S. Justice Department internal report, conducted by its inspector general, sharply criticized the department and the FBI for misusing immigration laws in its war on terrorism. Many of the secretly arrested and detained immigrants were held for prolonged periods in unduly harsh settings -- sometimes without charge. Most of the 762 detained were Arab and Muslim men.

There's also some notorious LAPD history to bear in mind. One of the counter-terrorism bureau's predecessors -- the Public Disorder Intelligence Division (PDID) -- had a scandalous record of illegal spying.

By 1975, for example, PDID was the custodian of almost 2 million dossiers on 55,000 individuals and organizations. Most of them were disposed of under court order. In the course of a lawsuit filed in 1981, it was learned that the intelligence unit had illegally spied on more than 200 individuals and organizations. Among those targeted were two California governors, a state attorney general, a mayor of Los Angeles, a future LAPD chief, City Council members, the National Organization for Women, the PTA and the World Council of Churches.

There was no outside oversight of the PDID. After William H. Parker became LAPD chief in 1950, he declared all intelligence files the "property of the chief of police," shielded from subpoena and outside perusal. But after the settlement of the 1981 suit, the Police Department entered into a consent decree that required it to dismantle the PDID. Its replacement, the Anti-Terrorism Division, was audited by a civilian staff member of the Police Commission.

John Miller, the current chief of the counter-terrorism bureau, has dismissed the idea that his unit is a potential PDID. "We are not spying on political organizations," he insisted in an interview. "We're not following City Council people; there are no secret charges, no secret courts; nobody's been denied counsel; and no one's been held incommunicado."

Indeed, Miller was quite forthcoming when asked about the 180 arrests in which his unit has participated since 9/11. Of the 74 arrests made by the counter-terrorism bureau itself, Miller said, 51 "involved cases connected to international terrorism" and 21 others were described as skinheads, members of the Aryan Brotherhood and other white supremacist groups, followers of the Jewish Defense League, an arsonist and mentally impaired people making terrorist threats.

The charges include murder, gun possession, parole violations, narcotics, marriage and Social Security fraud, forgery and perjury. According to Miller, the district attorney declined to prosecute four cases; 12 suspects pleaded guilty to various charges; 11 cases were turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for immigration violations; five were punished for parole violations; and two were transferred to federal authorities. The disposition of seven cases is unknown, and 21 others are either pending trial or "DA filed." The rest, says Miller, "didn't fit into any of the above categories" and were classified as "miscellaneous." No one, so far, has been charged with terrorism.

"The theory [behind] the investigations," said Miller, "is that when we develop information about a suspect's alleged connections to terrorist groups or terrorist fund-raising, we can develop that information by finding local criminal statutes that the [suspect is] violating, and arrest [him or her] with that. It's a window into the larger picture."

Miller, however, refused to reveal the names of those arrested, making it almost impossible to track their experiences and learn their fates. He said it was very unlikely that any arrests his bureau helped the feds make involved secret charges or secret arrests. But he could not say for certain.

There is no reason to believe that Miller is hiding something. As a former journalist, he knows that, sooner or later, lies and incriminating information have a way of coming to the surface. Furthermore, William J. Bratton came into office as a reform chief last year promising to make transparency and accountability cornerstones of his administration.

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