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Surge in bomb squad calls, 'suspicious packages' since Boston

April 22, 2013|By Richard Winton, Kurt Streeter and Andrew Blankstein
  • A member of the L.A. County sheriff's bomb squad carries a backback near the campus of Cal State L.A. last Thursday. A caller last week said a bomb would explode at the campus. The call was later deemed a hoax.
A member of the L.A. County sheriff's bomb squad carries a backback… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Someone calls a television station and makes a bomb threat, causing a phalanx of police to race to the scene. It’s a hoax.

Someone sees a package they think is a bomb, temporarily shuttering a city hall over terrorism fears. It’s a fake.

Yet another “suspicious package” is found, this time an abandoned backpack in Orange County.

“We found the rightful owner,” a police spokesman says, just “before needing to do a controlled explosion.”

The Boston Marathon bombings have left police stretched thin as they are forced to deal with troubling consequences: a surge in bomb squad calls from people who think they’ve spotted an explosive and an uptick in fake threats from opportunists seeking attention during a time of fear and frayed nerves.

“We’re getting three- or four-fold the number of bomb squad calls we usually do,” said Jim Amormino, spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, an increase also reported by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Officials at the Los Angeles Police Department said that since Boston’s deadly April 15 attack, their bomb squad has been getting five to seven calls a day, a significant increase considering it’s not uncommon for weeks to go by without a single call.

As happened in the weeks after 9/11, Boston’s carnage appears to have spurred, at least temporarily, a public shift.

“Any time someone leaves a bag alone for a few minute,s it draws people’s attention now,” said Amormino, who noted that bomb squads are erring on the side of caution, rolling to the scene of every call.

LAPD Lt. Andy Neiman says police are faced with a balancing act.

“We encourage people to continue to be alert … [but] we would ask that people do a little investigation on their own to make certain the item doesn’t belong to a neighbor, co-worker or fellow student prior to summoning police.”

Neiman noted that hoax calls contribute to additional demands on critical police resources. “False 911 calls deplete emergency resources to sometimes dangerous levels.... It contributes to the challenges for first responders when the public is already on edge.”

Those challenges were in full view last week when Orange County’s bomb squad pulled into the parking area of a Del Taco restaurant in Fullerton. Someone had spotted what looked like a pressure-cooker bomb similar to the ones used in Boston.

“It was one of the more elaborate hoaxes,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Sgt. Randy Sterett, noting that the device even had wires attached to it. “There was no doubt to us what it was meant to look like with it being similar to a pressure cooker … and then a short distance away was another device [also] made to look like a bomb.”

Police evacuated several Fullerton streets before determining that the devices were harmless hoaxes. “In this case, this was one of the more elaborate devices … somewhere between a bomb without explosives and a cardboard box with BOMB written on it.”

Sterett said investigators are looking into whether the Fullerton case may be connected to a similar-looking pressure-cooker device found last week in the parking lot of a Silver Lake grocery store. Police also continue to investigate other hoaxes that occurred over the last week, trying to track down who was behind the call that spurred evacuation of television station KTLA and the source of a suspicious envelope found Monday at Huntington Beach’s City Hall. The package turned out to be harmless, containing a large amount of what appeared to be sand, police said Monday afternoon.

James Allen Fox, a prominent criminologist at Boston’s Northeastern University, said the uptick in hoaxes fits into a pattern seen after high-profile mass violence.

“It makes sense. People of course are more skittish, more aware, after something like Boston,” said Fox, who underscored that there are good reasons for the extra awareness. First, he said, nobody has disproved the notion that the brothers suspected of planting the Boston bombs may have been part of broader scheme to wreak continued havoc. Second, fears of a copy-cat attack by someone seeking attention are grounded in reality. “Copy-catting,” Fox said, “that’s a legitimate fear, the idea of this being like a contagion.”

The criminologist, who happened to be at a meeting just a few blocks from where the marathon bombs went off, said the extra awareness also works to boost the number of prank calls. “These are coming from people who want to be part of the excitement out there,” he said. “They are like a lot of fire starters. They’re not trying to hurt people. They’re often young and immature and just looking for what they see as a thrill.”

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kurt.streeter@latimes.com; andrew.blankstein@latimes.com; richard.winton@latimes.com



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