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LAPD Seeks to Boost Antiterrorism Bureau

Department is asking the city for funds to hire 55 more specialized officers. At least one council member questions the urgency.

May 01, 2003|Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

One of the Los Angeles Police Department's most secret operations got an unusual public airing this week as police executives sought approval for 55 new jobs in the LAPD's bureau of counterterrorism while other city departments face budget cuts.

John Miller, chief of the LAPD's counterterrorism bureau, said his agency has headed off potential threats since Sept. 11, 2001, arresting 180 people suspected of having ties to terrorist groups, as well as initiating dozens of investigations.

LAPD officials said the 180 were arrested mostly on suspicion of low-level crimes before being charged with such offenses as perjury, credit card fraud and forgery.

Miller declined to name the people arrested, disclose the suspected links to terrorist groups, say how many are still in custody, or reveal how many of those arrested were prosecuted and convicted. Most of the cases were turned over to immigration officials, LAPD Cmdr. Mark Leap said.

Miller and his staff have touted the counterterrorism bureau's operations as the city fixes its spending plans for the new fiscal year. Miller said the bureau has doubled its surveillance activities since the Sept. 11 attacks, set up special security arrangements at 550 possible targets -- including the Port of Los Angeles and LAX -- and fielded 1,200 tips about suspected terrorists.

As many as 15% of the calls have triggered a preliminary investigation, police said, or have been referred to another agency.

The new public relations offensive comes as the City Council holds hearings on spending plans for the 2003-04 budget. Counterterrorism bureau officials made their case before council members this week, and got a mixed review.

City Councilman Jack Weiss, who favors appropriating money for the new positions, said the need for secrecy hampers the request. The new hires would boost the counterterrorism bureau to 249 people. The council is also considering an LAPD request for 325 new patrol officers and funding to pay for reforms that came out of the Rampart scandal.

"The concern I have is that many people in Los Angeles lack a sense of urgency about terrorism because, by and large, it hasn't happened here," Weiss said. "That sentiment is understandable. But anyone who has studied Al Qaeda and other emerging terrorist groups will tell you that Los Angeles will be at the top of their terror lists."

Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski questioned whether the bureau needs 15 new positions for liaison work with the U.S. State Department, foreign consulates, other U.S. police agencies and prisons. There are now 11 people doing such jobs.

"I have serious concerns about that priority today in a tight budget," Miscikowski said. She said gang violence is "the No. 1 terrorist threat to Los Angeles."

Councilman Tom LaBonge, who has not yet taken a position on the request, said the city budget must be balanced with the needs of patrol officers and, for example, public works projects, parks and libraries.

Other council members said the federal government could pick up part of the cost.

But Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told local officials last week that there would be little or no federal help, Weiss said. While the federal government would consider paying police overtime in the case of a catastrophic event, he said, they would not fund additional positions for counterterrorism.

In an interview, Miller disclosed that shortly before the Academy Awards ceremonies in March, 15 people with suspected terrorist ties were arrested on state charges.

They were taken into custody after LAPD counterterrorism officers identified them as having pilot's licenses or hazardous materials permits, he said. A small-aircraft attack or chemical attack were among the top concerns during the Hollywood awards show. Again, Miller declined to say whether those people were charged or released.

LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said he wants the bureau to play a larger role in policing Los Angeles. "The counterterrorism bureau has a much broader function than terrorism," Bratton said. "It has become by and large the intelligence entity for the department for all types of crime."

The bureau's work will often "feed right back into the department's more mainstream function," he said.

Counterterrorism bureau officers were involved in the arrest last month of a man who allegedly kidnapped a woman and her daughter in an extortion plot that involved a bomb threat at a Los Angeles car dealership, police said.

"What I want to do is go from having a counterterrorism unit worthy of a small Midwestern town to the big leagues," Weiss said. "We're the second-largest city in the country and we have dozens, if not hundreds of significant targets, and yet as presently staffed, we don't have the proper resources to protect the city from terrorist attacks."

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