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Homeland security, home style

Lacking funds and manpower, Bratton's war on terror is based on the principle of sharing.

July 15, 2007|Judith Miller | JUDITH MILLER is coauthor of "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War." This article was adapted from a longer version appearing in the forthcoming issue of City Journal.

THREE TIME zones, 3,000 miles and a cultural galaxy apart, New York and Los Angeles -- along with Washington -- face a common threat: They are prime targets of Islamic terrorists.

On the face of it, two of the nation's biggest metropolitan police forces seem to have adopted kindred counter-terrorism strategies. Both have roving SWAT, or "Emergency Service Unit," teams equipped with gas masks and antidotes to chemical and biological agents. Both have set up "fusion" centers to screen threats and monitor secret intelligence and "open-source" information, including radical Islam Internet sites. Both have started programs to identify and protect probable targets. Both have tried to integrate private security experts into their work. Both conduct surveillance that would have been legally questionable before 9/11.

Yet despite such similarities, the terror-fighting approaches of New York and L.A., like the cities themselves, reflect different traditions, styles and, above all, resources. New York, which knows the price of failure and thus has a heightened "threat perception," sets the gold standard for counter-terrorism -- and has the funding ($204 million) and manpower (about 1,000) to do it. Deploying its own informants, undercover terror-busters and a small army of analysts, New York tries to locate and neutralize pockets of militancy even before potentially violent individuals can form radical cells.

By contrast, in L.A., terrorism is a less-pressing concern than gang violence and other crime. Lacking the political incentive, and hence the resources, to wage his own war on terror, Chief William J. Bratton has pooled scarce funds, manpower and information with various government and public safety agencies -- a creative approach that federal officials hold up as a model for financially strapped police departments across the country.

In many ways, Los Angeles and New York might as well be on different planets. The sheer range of territory that Bratton's roughly 9,550-member force and other law enforcement agencies must cover is daunting. "What is New York at its widest -- 40 miles?" asks Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, a champion of Bratton's campaign for more funds and flexibility for the Los Angeles Police Department, especially its counter-terrorism efforts. "The city of Los Angeles alone is some 450 square miles." The FBI's L.A. field office must protect 18 million residents in seven counties, says its head, J. Stephen Tidwell.

Civic culture and history also constrain Bratton's terrorism-fighting capabilities. The LAPD's notorious resort to illegal surveillance in the past led to extremely tight legal restrictions on whom it could monitor, and for what kinds of suspected offenses. Bratton is trying to loosen those restrictions, but many Angelenos remain suspicious of the police. Most New Yorkers witnessed the 9/11 attacks, lost friends and relatives or knew people who knew victims, but for Angelenos, terrorism -- except in the L.A.-based TV show "24" -- is something that happens to others.

Of its $1.2-billion budget, the LAPD spends roughly $24 million on counter-terrorism.

Such limitations make Bratton's progress on counter-terrorism since his appointment five years ago all the more remarkable. The department's counterterrorism unit has 256 members, some of them borrowed from other divisions, with 21 positions unfilled.

The perpetual shortage of manpower and funds has made "sharing," "jointness" and "force multiplier" Bratton mantras. He has relentlessly sought to forge closer ties with other law enforcement and public safety agencies in the region, particularly the FBI. The FBI's Tidwell describes law enforcement cooperation in L.A. as "almost genetic," a tradition forged by decades of joint responses to earthquakes, fires and floods that plague the Southland. On the Joint Terrorism Task Force squads, to which Bratton has assigned 15 officers, the FBI clearly leads.

And the Department of Homeland Security now has an official stationed full time at L.A.'s crown jewel of "jointness": the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, or "Jay-Rick," which both Bratton and Michael Chertoff, secretary of the department, hold up as a model for fusion centers soon to be operational in more than three dozen U.S. cities. Launched with a $4-million Homeland Security grant and opened last year in a federal building in Norwalk, the center has 30 staffers from federal and other local law enforcement agencies, including 16 from the LAPD. The analysts vet tips and leads -- nearly 25 a week, on average -- to identify the 1% that prove serious. If someone threatens to spread anthrax in the city, for instance, the center's "threat squad" tries to figure out if the danger is real.

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