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Counter-terrorism becomes part of law enforcement

Since Sept. 11, local policing has been reshaped — with officers studying Taliban tactics, traveling overseas and reaching out to Muslim communities in the U.S. Some wonder if it's working.

September 06, 2011|By Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times
  • Sgt. Steven Arellano at an LAPD outreach event at Iman Cultural Center.
Sgt. Steven Arellano at an LAPD outreach event at Iman Cultural Center. (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles…)

On a sunny afternoon this summer, dozens of Los Angeles police officers converged on the Iman Cultural Center and mosque in West Los Angeles.

They brought bureaucratic swag — pens and mugs emblazoned with the LAPD insignia — and then, accompanied by a smiling Chief Charlie Beck, crowded into a banquet hall in a blue swarm of friendly handshakes and words of welcome and fellowship.

When it was his turn at the microphone, Deputy Chief Michael Downing added another point: that the LAPD values its relationship with Muslim communities and wants people to continue to reach out if they suspect someone they know is becoming radicalized.

Photos: The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001

The event was a sign of how terrorism concerns have reshaped local policing in the decade since 9/11.

From the New York Police Department to small rural sheriff's departments, agencies have added counter-terrorism to their traditional crime-fighting duties — a shift that has cost billions of dollars and changed not just the equipment police use, but the way they approach law enforcement.

Police officers now monitor extremist chat rooms, study the tactics and weaponry of the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, and travel to Muslim countries to develop their own intelligence.

The NYPD has more than 1,000 officers engaged in counter-terrorism, including a dozen based overseas. It recruits foreign-born New Yorkers and trains them in secret for undercover work.

In Los Angeles, 700 police officers work in the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, including some who speak Urdu and Arabic. That's more than twice as many officers as are assigned to any police station in the city, even those in the highest-crime areas.

Local police also team up with federal authorities at 72 "fusion centers" around the country, where experts from an alphabet soup of agencies work in adjoining cubicles to analyze "suspicious activity reports." They look for unusual trends, unexpected behaviors and other potential clues that deserve further investigation.

Outreach to Muslim communities is a major thrust of police counter-terrorism efforts. The NYPD sponsors cricket leagues that help develop relationships with young people from Pakistan and other Islamic countries. LAPD representatives meet regularly with Muslim leaders.

"I would sum it up in one quick sentence, and that is: Traditionally law enforcement has not had any direct responsibility for national security, and now we do," said Michael Grossman, chief of the homeland security division at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "And that changes a lot … of what we do."

Local police have helped uncover or foil alleged terrorist plots in several cities, from Torrance, Calif., to Seattle, and no large-scale attack has succeeded anywhere in the United States. But it's a matter of debate whether that is because of smarter policing, an alert public or blind luck.

Police quickly found the Pakistani-born man who tried to detonate a massive car bomb in Times Square in May 2010. But it was a street vendor who first reported smoke pouring from a parked car; the bomb had been ignited but failed to explode. (NYPD officials said they thought the bomb may have faltered in part because they do such a good job of flagging explosives sales in the region, causing the bomber to resort to less effective explosives.)

New York police conduct random bag inspections in the subways to search for bombs or weapons. Has it stopped any terrorists?

"Who knows? We may have deterred people," said Paul Browne, deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department.

The evidence appeared clearer this summer in Killeen, Texas, which is adjacent to the Ft. Hood military base. On July 27, police in Killeen arrested Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo, who was absent without leave from another Army base, on charges that he was planning to bomb fellow soldiers.

The tip came from Greg Ebert, a retired cop working at the nearby Guns Galore shop, who got an "uncomfortable feeling" when Abdo showed up in a taxi for a shopping spree that included three boxes of ammunition.

Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan purchased a semiautomatic pistol at the same shop and is accused of using it to kill 13 people and wound 29 others at Ft. Hood on Nov. 5, 2009.

Ebert said he grew suspicious when Abdo bought canisters of smokeless gunpowder but didn't seem to know what they were.

Local police and the FBI responded quickly. After conducting surveillance, authorities raided Abdo's motel room and found what they described as a trove of bomb-making materials. He was immediately arrested.

In addition to fighting attacks, police are working to improve relationships.

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