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LAPD leads the way in local counter-terrorism

A commander's checklist is a link from traditional police work to collecting data to combat terror attacks.

April 14, 2008|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

Since 9/11, authorities have urged local police to become the front line in domestic counter-terrorism, gathering street-level intelligence about crimes and suspicious activities that could foretell another attack.

But for various reasons it has not worked out that way. The nation's 17,000 local law enforcement agencies have gathered information in their own haphazard ways or not at all, authorities and experts say. Most police officers, after all, are trained to gather evidence to prove crimes, not to cultivate and analyze intelligence to prevent terrorists from striking.

Now, however, a Los Angeles Police Department official has devised a solution that is considered so cheap, so easy to implement and so innovative that federal authorities in Washington are considering making it a national model for all police departments.

Cmdr. Joan T. McNamara, who heads the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, revised the investigative report that officers must fill out for crimes, real or suspected, adding a section where they can describe in detail any kind of potential terrorist-related activity. In addition, officers are now required to fill out the forms if they observe suspicious activity, whether or not a crime was committed.

Until now, no one thought to codify the suspicious activities usually associated with terrorism in order to look for patterns and trends, McNamara said in an interview.

In recent months, all LAPD officers have been receiving training in what kinds of suspicious activities to look for, based on a 65-item checklist that McNamara and her small staff drew up. The checklist includes indications that someone conducted surveillance on a government building, tried to acquire explosives, openly espoused extremist views or abandoned a suspicious package.

McNamara also included a box on the form that must be checked if any of those suspicious activities are listed in the report. If the box is checked, a copy of the form is forwarded to specially trained analysts in her intelligence bureau, who then enter the information into a database that can be used by other law enforcement agencies.

McNamara, a 26-year veteran and highly decorated police commander, is new to counter-terrorism. After making a name for herself in narcotics investigations, she was brought in to head the high-profile counter-terrorism bureau last April by Deputy Chief Michael Downing. He said he wanted "fresh eyes" to see how the LAPD could better institutionalize counter-terrorism within the entire police force, from the front line officers up the chain of command.

McNamara brought her idea to Downing and Police Chief William J. Bratton. They were immediately supportive, she said, because it played into their existing campaign to transform police officers from traditional crime fighters into intelligence-gatherers.

Bratton, a former New York Police Department chief, was especially enthusiastic, she said, because he had been a pioneer in the use of statistics and standardized reporting to analyze and combat crime trends, a process known as Compstat.

After the LAPD consulted with officials in Washington and civil liberties experts, Bratton issued a special order March 5 that formally required all officers to report incidents "potentially related to foreign or domestic terrorism," using McNamara's program.

By then, the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence was interested. This month, it dispatched teams of experts to Boston and Chicago to see if the program can be implemented in those cities as a precursor to a much larger rollout. Another team will soon visit Miami.

Maj. Michael Ronczkowski, head of Miami's Homeland Security Bureau, was one of many law enforcement officials who praised the LAPD program at a two-day law enforcement intelligence conference in Los Angeles, which ended Friday.

"It's about time someone at the local level took the initiative to be this proactive," said Ronczkowski, who is also a member of the Major Cities Chiefs Assn.'s Intelligence Commanders Group, a national law enforcement advocacy group. "What L.A. is doing could impact the entire country."


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