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On the Front Line in the War on Terrorism

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In City Journal, Judith Miller has a long and interesting piece on the police departments of New York and Los Angeles, and their differing approaches to counterterrorism: On the Front Line in the War on Terrorism.

On the face of it, the nation’s two biggest metropolitan forces seem to have adopted kindred counterterrorism strategies. Both have roving SWAT or “Emergency Service Unit” teams, equipped with gas masks and antidotes to chemical and biological agents. Both have set up “fusion” centers to screen threats and monitor secret intelligence and “open-source” information, including radical Internet sites, and both have started programs to identify and protect likely targets. Both have tried to integrate private security experts into their work. Both conduct surveillance that would have been legally questionable before September 11. Both have sought to enlist support from mainstream Muslims and have encouraged various private firms to report suspicious activity.

Yet despite such similarities, the terror-fighting approaches of New York and L.A., like the cities themselves, reflect very different traditions, styles, and, above all, resources. New York, which knows the price of failure and thus has a heightened “threat perception,” sets the gold standard for counterterrorism—and has the funding and manpower to do it. Kelly, 65, views his highest priority as ensuring that al-Qaida doesn’t hit the city again. “When your city has been attacked, the threat is always with you,” he tells me. Deploying its own informants, undercover terror-busters, and a small army of analysts, New York tries to locate and neutralize pockets of militancy even before potentially violent individuals can form radical cells—a “preventive” approach, as Kelly calls it, that is the most effective way that police departments, small or large, can help fight terror.

In L.A., a city that has never been attacked, terrorism is a less pressing concern than gang violence and other crime. Lacking the political incentive, and hence the resources, to wage his own war on terror, Bratton, 59, has instead pooled scarce funds, manpower, and information with federal and other agencies—an approach that federal officials hold up as a model for police departments that can’t afford New York’s investment.

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