LAPD’s Chief Bratton knows larger terrorism threat

October 22, 2007

Article Last Updated: 10/15/2007 06:24:53 PM PDT

THE Los Angeles Police Department’s counterterrorism capabilities have grown exponentially in the past six years. We are constantly training and building our capacity – both in terms of personnel and equipment – all in an attempt to prevent terrorism from taking root in the city of Los Angeles. Despite this, we are often criticized for our decisions by people who are either uninformed or rush to judgment based on inaccurate information.

The latest evolution of this is Charles Peña’s Oct. 6 opinion piece, "LAPD chief doesn’t understand the terrorist threat."

Peña contends that the department’s acquisition of devices that detect radiological weapons and materials was essentially unwarranted and that Chief William Bratton does not grasp the "larger terrorist threat." He is wrong on both counts, and I think it is important to illustrate why.

In the last three Urban Area Security Initiative grant cycles, the LAPD has received more than $40 million of federal money for projects and equipment aimed at keeping Angelenos safe from terrorism and other threats. The $275,000 used to equip a helicopter and officers on the ground with devices capable of detecting radiological signatures consistent with "dirty bombs" constitutes only 0.7 percent of the total grant funds allocated to the LAPD.

This equipment is only one element of a broader intelligence-driven strategy. In the case of a potential threat, these tools, coupled with an intelligence-led policing strategy, can quickly determine whether a radiological signature is a legitimate concern – saving time and freeing up other national assets.

These are not intended to be the only technological resources in the region to detect radiological signatures. In the event of a legitimate threat, resources from the Fire Department, the Sheriff’s Department, other county entities and the FBI would immediately be brought to bear on the problem.

To address Peña’s concern about "countless false alarms," it is important to note that these are not mindless tools that direct operations. In fact, the antithesis is true. Trained and experienced police professionals employ these tools and they know how to distinguish between kitty litter and Polonium 210.

Peña correctly observes that there have only been two cases where dirty bombs have been used. But this does not negate the fact that terrorists have planned and will continue to plan to use these bombs to attack the social, economic and psychological fabric of America.

Unfortunately, it would not be very difficult to collect the necessary radiological source materials. Instructions for putting these elements together in a deadly cocktail are only a mouse click away.

The other important issue to consider is the impact that a dirty-bomb explosion would have on the city of Los Angeles. While the explosion itself would harm a handful of people, the social, economic and psychological impact of such an act would ripple through the larger community.

In the last four years, Chief Bratton has expanded the counterterrorism command from fewer than 30 officers to nearly 300. Bratton understands the larger threat and knows that local police can be leveraged in the War on Terror to protect the homeland. The cops are the eyes and ears of the community, the first preventers creating a hostile environment for terrorists.

These efforts to enhance our ability to detect dirty bombs are but one of many strategies and initiatives that the counterterrorism command has developed. I hope that the public’s support is with the experts, whose job it is to protect communities, understand the risk, and prepare for the inevitable.

Michael P. Downing is deputy chief commanding officer in the Counter-Terrorism/Criminal Intelligence Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department.