Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

9/11 Anniversary: talking to the LAPD’s top terrorism cop

A dozen years after 9/11, LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Downing says its important to remain vigilant. Terrorism is a
A dozen years after 9/11, LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Downing says its important to remain vigilant. Terrorism is a "low volume, high consequence threat."
Brian Watt/KPCC

When he wakes up in the morning, LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Downing often looks at the news from overseas first.

“We are paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in Syria right now,” he says.

Downing, 54, heads the department’s Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau. He says his officers are watching for any violent reaction here, should the U.S. take military action.

“Whether it be an anti-war protest, or whether it be a Syrian diaspora that has family over there – the emotions are very high,” he says.

The deputy chief says part of his job is to urge various groups that may be angry with the U.S. to engage in dissent peacefully.  "We can be a model in terms of how we deal with conflict."

A dozen years after Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States, Southern California remains a prime target, Downing says. Los Angeles International Airport, the L.A.-Long Beach port complex, and dozens of entertainment venues make it “target rich.”

Downing's biggest concern is "homegrown" terrorists – radicalized American citizens quietly operating on their own or in small groups. “The problem with that type of threat is that it’s very hard to detect.”

That’s why public reporting remains so important, Downing says.

“If you are suspicious of something…or you know kids that have changed their behavior and they’re plotting, or they’re doing something that is bad, you have a responsibility to tell us.”

(Here are examples of behaviors and activities that should be reported to police, according to the LAPD.) 

Civil libertarians say such a broad request from police can result in racial profiling. The American Civil Liberties Union also has expressed concerns with the nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting program, known as SARS, which allows officers to collect information on people engaged in suspicious – but not necessarily criminal – behavior.

In one 2011 case, LAPD officers questioned a man who was in front of a bank creating a painting that depicted the building on fire. Passersby had called police.

Downing says the department and the Joint Regional Intelligence Center that coordinates anti-terrorism activities in Southern California have protocols protecting constitutional rights. He also argues even a small piece of information may someday help prevent a terrorist attack. “It might be a piece down the line that will fit, and make a connection.”

Asked about public concerns over the collection of telephone and other records by the National Security Agency, Downing declines to enter the political debate. He says the LAPD doesn’t “work directly with the NSA.”

But the deputy chief admits his bureau regularly enters information about individuals and suspicious behavior into a national law enforcement database.    

“It goes into a shared space federal environment,” he says. “The federal agencies could use” the information.

Of the LAPD’s nearly 10,000 officers, 700 work in Downing’s bureau tracking down what he describes as “hundreds of leads” a month. Not all of his officers work solely on counter-terrorism. He wouldn’t provide that number.

Downing says finding the right approach to terrorism is difficult today.

“Part of our effort is to make sure we don’t go into a malaise and terrorism fatigue,” he says. “But we also don’t want to become overanxious and paranoid about it.”