Former LAPD street cop now fights terrorism for the FBI

The Port of Long Beach opened a new security operations center this month. It's supposed to help prevent a terrorist attack on one of the busiest commercial harbors in the nation. The man who helps to direct this effort and other components of the fight against terrorism in the Southland is a former LAPD street cop who rose to the highest ranks of the FBI. KPCC's Frank Stoltze spoke with Gomez about how he chose law enforcement; and what he considers the most serious threats to the region.

Frank Stoltze: Early in life, Steven Gomez learned about crime. He grew up in a tough Pico Rivera neighborhood where gang members reigned.

Steven Gomez: From a simple matter of a gang member wanted me to do his homework for him, and putting a knife to my stomach and saying you are going to do my homework for me.

Stoltze: One day, Gomez complied. The next day, at his father's insistence, he said "no" and began to walk away. Within a few tense moments, the teenage gangster called in reinforcements. Finally they gave up – and Gomez learned how to stand up to criminals.

Gomez: That type of stuff leaves a serious impression on a young child who is only 12 years old.

Stoltze: Gomez says the incident helped inspire him to make a career of fighting bad guys. He spent a year as an LAPD cop patrolling the streets of South L.A. before he joined the FBI for the travel benefits.

His work has taken him around the world. Today, he's special agent in charge of the federal agency's Counterterrorism Division in Southern California. Gomez supervises more than 150 agents, including a special unit devoted to incoming threat information.

Gomez: We call it our threat squad. It's called CT-6. In some cases, their day is like "24" that you see on TV. They get a threat in, they triage it, they immediately address it, they figure out what the threat is about, credibility of it, and then they resolve it.

Stoltze: It's a high-stress job rife with false alarms – like the time a spurned lover threatened to launch bomb attacks on a Westside mall where his girlfriend worked.

Gomez: Hoaxes are a huge problem. Because we don't take these threats lightly.

Stoltze: He says his team is duty bound to track down each and every threat. Gomez says the FBI learned a lot from the Mumbai attacks, in which terrorists targeted hotels in India's financial capital. In December, he led training sessions for hotel security personnel.

Gomez: So if you had a situation where terrorists were inside the hotel and seizing control of the hotel, would you necessarily want the hotel residents to be coming out of their rooms and now expose themselves to being captured and held hostage? Or would you want them to shelter in place, stay in their hotel, lock the doors, and act as if there's nobody in the room?

Stoltze: L.A. International Airport, the San Onofre nuclear power plant, the Southland's high-profile entertainment venues – all are attractive terrorist targets. Gomez says that while the region is well protected, there are tradeoffs. At the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, inspectors screen a fraction of the thousands of shipping containers that arrive every day.

Gomez: It's a business decision. It's a matter of well, what are we going to give up? Are we going to give up a certain amount of screening over the speed and delivering these goods and services for the private sector?

Stoltze: Gomez says he worries most about home-grown terrorists – U.S. citizens who, for whatever reason, take out their grievances on domestic targets. He recalls a case four years ago in which a Los Angeles gang member serving time in state prison formed a group called The Association of True Islam.

The man and three others planned attacks on synagogues and military installations before authorities arrested him. Gomez says homegrown terrorists are harder to track because they're born and raised here.

Gomez: That familiarity provides an individual who may become radical to hide under the radar. They're able to function and use the system to facilitate whatever terrorist act they may be plotting.

Stoltze: Like many people in the business of fighting terrorism, Gomez figures that the next attack on the United States – regardless of who's behind it – isn't a matter of "if," but "when."