Terrorism and the Municipal Police Department

As previously written by former Chief of Police Bernard C. Parks & former Captain Joseph Curreri as updated by former Captain Gary S. Williams, previous Commanding Officer of Major Crimes Division.

“The United States continues to be the land of opportunity, hopes and dreams. It has, in effect, become a place of refuge for people throughout the world. Individuals representing literally every culture, religion, and nationality known to exist in the civilized world reside in nearly every city throughout our country. Diversity is enriching, but it also often serves as a vehicle of fear, mistrust and hatred. Our nation’s relatively liberal immigration policies also make the infiltration of members or sympathizers of terrorist organizations across our country’s borders fairly easy. In addition, the United States has long been considered a lucrative fund-raising venue for both domestic and international terrorist organizations. During the last few years, however, we have seen an increased tendency on the part of these organizations to expand their operational objectives in the United States. No longer is the United States merely the “banker” for their operations; it has more frequently become the target. Local municipalities can no longer afford to “wash their hands” of the terrorist threat by claiming it is a federal responsibility. In order to continue to provide an adequate level of security for the people we are sworn to protect, local law enforcement agencies must join in the fight against terrorism.”

Prophetic Words? – Not really. The above paragraph was written several years before September 11, 2001 by former Major Crimes Division Commanding Officer, Joseph Curreri. The words were accurate then and were based on existing information at the time. It was not a prophecy; it was contemporary reality. Obviously, it fits today’s world as well. Much has happened in our Country since 911 as it relates to Homeland Security. We say again, it’s time for local law enforcement agencies to get involved in the war on terrorism.

Major Crimes Division

Since 1970, the Los Angeles Police Department has had an intelligence unit responsible for the prevention of significant disruption of public order by those who seek political or social change through illegal means. Major Crimes Division (MCD), as the division currently configured is charged with this responsibility, and was established in 1983.

Los Angeles California is home to 3.8 million people. Within the greater Los Angeles Area the population swells to over 14 million. Los Angles is known for unparalleled diversity. As the entertainment capitol of the world, Los Angeles is home to theme parks, major league sporting events, world Class film and theatre productions, and every manner of recreation from snow skiing to surfing. On average, over 60 million people will travel through Los Angeles International Airport on any given year. Three international airports, commuter rail, light rail, and subways serve Los Angeles. The annual waterborne freight traffic through the Los Angeles Harbor regularly exceeds 40,000 short tons. Include the Long Beach Harbor and the tonnage is increased to 100,000. The annual budget for the City of Los Angeles alone is over 4 Billion dollars. If ever a terrorist wanted to attack an icon of western ideals, Los Angeles would certainly be among the targets. Every major city can likely develop a similar list of reasons why terrorism is a municipal concern. However, even medium and small cities must now consider the possibility that they too will be subject to attack or serve as a base of operation for a terrorist cell.

Major Crimes Division is the prevention component of the City’s anti-terrorism effort. It is connected to several other functions in terms of supplying appropriate intelligence information. That connectivity includes the first responders (Patrol, Bomb Squad, Hazardous Materials, SWAT, Fire Department) and crisis managers as well as The Los Angeles County Terrorist Early Warning System and the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center. It is an integral part of the City’s crisis management process, which also includes recovery and community outreach programs. Major Crimes Division has also developed excellent working relationships with many federal agencies over the years. It is because of those ongoing relationships and a well-developed infrastructure that critical intelligence information is shared appropriately.

This article is presented, not as a comprehensive blueprint for the establishment and management of an intelligence unit, but rather as a summary of issues the police manager should consider when establishing an intelligence unit.

Establishing an Intelligence Unit

The establishment of an intelligence unit can be quite a controversial undertaking. The nature of the intelligence function and the need for secrecy conjure images of cloak and dagger spy operatives within the community. Public officials and private citizens naturally and rightfully become concerned with the potential for infringement upon civil liberties. It is therefore incumbent upon the municipal law enforcement manager to carefully evaluate the need for such a unit and be prepared to clearly and completely articulate the justification. Because the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the lead federal agency in the fight against terrorism, some may argue that the responsibility for such investigations should remain at the federal level, especially if an agency is contemplating establishing an intelligence unit strictly to combat the terrorist threat. The local FBI field office might even agree with those opposed to the formation of an intelligence unit within the municipal agency and may suggest that the agency provide a number of their personnel to a combined task force rather than establish a unit within the municipal agency. Such is the case in many parts of the country.

The Los Angeles Police Department is a charter member agency in the Los Angeles Task Force on Terrorism which has been in existence since the planning of the 1984 Olympics. That task force has, and continues to be a successful enterprise. A number of MCD personnel are permanently assigned to the Los Angeles FBI office to work on a daily basis with their federal counterparts. This partnership has been beneficial in knocking down barriers to communication and enhancing coordination efforts. The Los Angeles Police Department has, however, found it essential to maintain the majority of the personnel assigned to MCD as a separate entity for a number of reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to: interaction with other Los Angeles Police Department entities, community relations activities, liaison with consulate offices and other law enforcement agencies. Additionally, by maintaining an independent unit, the Department assures accountability and focused investigations designed to protect the specific interests of the City. It should be noted that all MCD personnel, whether or not physically located at the Federal Building, are considered members of the Los Angeles Task Force on Terrorism.

The very critical component to intelligence efforts to prevent terrorism is the ability to work together, to share appropriate information and, within the confines of the law, disrupt terrorist efforts whenever and wherever possible. Sharing information is based on building trusting relationships with counterparts throughout the region and the country. Building appropriate working relationships with other local and state agencies is a critical component of any municipal intelligence operation.

Guideline Issues

Once the need for an intelligence unit has been justified and a mission clearly articulated comprehensive guidelines governing the units operation must be established. This is absolutely essential to avoid potential abuses by well-intentioned investigators. The guidelines cannot be a mere restatement of procedures followed by all other Department employees. The intelligence function is unique and must be controlled to a greater degree than the functions of other Department entities. Careful structuring of the guidelines will not only establish a clear direction for investigative efforts, but will also save the Department manager from dealing with litigation arising from the unit’s operations. The guidelines should include criteria for opening and maintaining an investigation; limitations and prohibitions concerning investigative methods; dissemination of intelligence information; control and management of sources whether they are official, citizen, or civilian; undercover and surveillance activities; control of intelligence files; personnel administration; auditing and oversight; and public access to information.


The municipal governing body, whether a mayor, city manager, city council or a combination thereof and the community at large will hold the Department manager directly accountable for the actions of the intelligence unit. Therefore, an effort should be made to reduce the number of management levels between the unit and the Department manager. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division is not only accountable to the Chief of Police, but is also closely scrutinized by the Board of Police Commissioners, a panel of five members of the community who are appointed by the Mayor to oversee Department operations and establish policy. Regularly scheduled briefings should be provided by the unit to the Department manager. Major Crimes Division undergoes a comprehensive annual audit of its entire operation by the Police Commission’s auditor and is, furthermore, subject to unannounced audits by the Commission. This oversight by an objective civilian entity is welcomed and essential in maintaining the confidence of the City Council and citizenry that abuses of power are not taking place. It is important, moreover, to ensure that the independent auditors of the intelligence unit are closely scrutinized and subject to comprehensive background investigations.

Personnel Selection

Personnel selection is a key ingredient in determining the level of the success of an intelligence unit. As stated earlier, the intelligence unit is unique and requires the services of mature, tenured investigators who fully understand the nature of the intelligence function. Most intelligence functions are long lasting. Investigative efforts should serve to discourage acts of terrorism. Prevention, rather than prosecution, is the bottom line. Personnel assigned to the unit must clearly understand this concept and must also have the patience to learn the philosophies and cultures of targeted groups to better enable predictions of their actions in relation to developing local and world events. This process, known as analysis, is what develops information into intelligence.

Investigators who tend to become easily frustrated or measure success by how often handcuffs are placed on suspects would probably not fit in well in such a unit. They are more likely to bend the rules, which could mean disaster for the entire unit. When selecting personnel for Major Crimes Division, a careful screening process takes place which includes an oral interview, package review, interviews of the candidate’s supervisors, and a detailed background investigation, including a polygraph examination. Individuals who are sympathetic to a particular targeted group or cause may be able to function in patrol or other investigative assignments, but they should quickly be screened from assignment to the intelligence unit. All personnel assigned to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division, including the Division’s commanding officer, also must obtain a top secret clearance through the FBI because, as a member of the Los Angeles Task Force on Terrorism, they share information with the FBI and have access to their files. All personnel must go through the screening process, including the unit’s clerical staff. The process is lengthy and tedious, but pays dividends in maintaining the confidentiality of the unit’s data as well as ensuring a mature, loyal staff.

Command and Control

Lastly, it is extremely important for the unit to be its own “watch dog.” The unit’s supervisors must not totally rely on a neutral auditor to insure mandated procedures are adhered to. Internal audits and controls must be conducted frequently, at regularly scheduled intervals, as well as unannounced periodic inspections. The audits should cover all aspects of the unit’s operation. Supervisors must also be proactive by providing leadership and demonstrating active interest in cases, participating in surveillance activities, meeting sources developed by their subordinates, conducting work day audits, and ensuring total compliance with established guidelines.


The intelligence unit is a unique entity within a municipal police department. It must be carefully managed and closely scrutinized. The time and effort expended to ensure adequate controls are in place to assist in the management of the unit will prove to be prudent. Guidelines governing operations, personnel selection, equipment, logistics, dissemination of information procedures, reporting procedures, and file security must all be of equal importance in establishing and managing such a unit.

The Department manager should look upon the intelligence unit from a number of perspectives. First it is an insurance policy. By keeping abreast of the activities of organizations known to advocate violence as a means to accomplish their goals, law enforcement is better able to counter their plans. The intelligence unit is yet another tool available to the Department manager in the effort to ensure the safety and well being of the community for which the manager is responsible. The intelligence unit is also uniquely prepared, through the eventual contacts which will necessarily be made throughout the intelligence community, to assist in the planning of line operations and counter terrorism strategies through formal and informal briefings, threat assessments, officer safety bulletins, trends analysis and the like. It must be emphasized, however, that only through proactive, sound management will success of the unit be realized.

While Major Crimes Division may be unique and may not be the model for every municipality, the sharing of critical information so that decision-makers can make intelligent decisions is absolutely necessary in today’s world. We believe every municipality must, in some way, have a process for collecting, analyzing and sharing critical intelligence information with all levels of government. And, that function must be an integral part of the security, response, crisis management, recovery and community outreach processes. The security of our homeland depends on it!