Securing the homeland in a 16-hour day

L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca keeps frenetic pace to fight terrorist threat.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Although he is 8,000 miles from US troops in the Gulf, Leroy Baca rises before dawn each morning with equal amounts of military precision and patriotic urgency.

At 5:30 a.m., the 60-year-old Mexican-American will run 8 miles (32 laps) around the track of California Polytechnic Institute near his San Marino home. Then he will switch from Nikes and sweatshirt to patent-leather shoes and uniform as chief law enforcement officer of the nation's largest county. For the next 16 hours, he will oversee thousands of "troops" - uniformed street officers, hazardous material experts, medical personnel and others - in a war against an almost intangible foe: domestic terror.

Sheriff to 10.5 million people, Mr. Baca is a leading steward in the crucial mission of maintaining homeland security, a task that has grown in urgency since the war on Iraq started.

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For Baca, as with other police chiefs and sheriffs nationwide, that means seven days a week of ratcheted-up readiness. Now that the war is in full bore, officials are hastening to refine playbooks of logistical responses to attacks on targets ranging from petroleum-tank farms to sports palaces.

There's another component of the job, too. Sheriff Baca spends part of his day engaging in a public-relations campaign, soothing frayed nerves with the calm and grace of a skilled clergyman.

"War abroad causes tension in America," he tells local news reporters at a press conference. "Please let your audiences know that we are prepared as humanly possible for anything that can come our way."

U-turns and multitasking

After the press conference in front of the Sheriff Department's Emergency Operation Center, a barbed-wired, Fort Knox-like complex reputed to be impermeable to earthquake, mudslide, flood, and riot - Baca gets into a mobile war room: his patrol car.

As a SWAT-team veteran drives, U-turns and red-curb parking are commonplace - as are half-hour lunches at 3 o'clock.

In the car, Baca works a two-line cellphone from the shotgun seat, arranging meetings with the governor and military officials, often putting one or both on hold - all while being interviewed by a backseat reporter.

He says his mission is twofold.

One is to make sure the region's line of "first responders" (firemen, law enforcers, and medical personnel) are well enough organized to deal with recriminative actions by terrorists within US borders. The other is to keep citizens from worrying about their own safety. That includes lessening any possible tensions between Arab and nonArab communities.

Tomorrow, at the request of the governor, he will hold a press conference with Islamic clerics and tell an assembled audience, "This nation is all about interfaith harmony. It is a point to continue to emphasize as we move into these troubled days of war in Iraq."

On this day, though, he emphasizes his other theme. At 7 a.m. he tells an audience at a local radio station that the region is a national model for terror readiness. In turn, the TV and radio reporters fire back.

Question: "Does that mean the region is ready for anything, that all targets are safe?"

Answer: "Is the harbor wide open for attack, you better believe it is ... We could have 10,000 more officers and some areas would still be vulnerable," he says.

One problem here, and elsewhere, is the increased demand for personnel and equipment nationwide. Though he's able to spell out the number of laptops available for emergencies and boast that 1,700 protective suits are in hand, his department's order of 8,600 gas masks will not be filled for days yet.

Interagency relationships

Partly because of such shortages, the post-9/11 buzzword in homeland security has become "mutual aid" - new arrangements for sharing information, personnel, equipment, and tactical planning. Those include new relationships with the FBI, CIA, port authorities, fire departments, and "hazmat" (hazardous material) personnel. "We were stodgy, selfish bureaucracies who only shared begrudgingly," says the sheriff. "Now we know how to help each other in ways that were only dreamed of before."

Mr. Baca should know. As chief law enforcement officer of the nation's largest county he has to keep track of 15,000 personnel - including those belonging to the nation's second-largest city. With a PhD in public administration, the county's top cop has a reputation for progressive ideas.

"One of the best things I have found on my four months here is this guy, Lee Baca," says William Bratton, newly appointed LAPD chief of police. "He is philosophically very progressive and has an uncommonly broad range of skills in making things happen in every area of police work."

Since Sept. 11, the sheriff has chaired the state's antiterrorism information center - a network of California's 350 police departments. It also means helping to administer a national association of police departments set on countering terrorism. Both roles paved the way for a recent tour of Israel which provided important context for terror readiness.

"They have 700 incidents a year," he says. The whole society has developed a mental toughness that we will likely have to develop here as well."

Whether or not southern Californians are mentally prepared, Baca feels they are ready tactically and strategically. At the end of a day of press conferences, high-level meetings, and media appearances, he drives 20 miles into the San Fernando Valley for a symposium on "law and order" that will be televised regionwide.

Keep 'em peeled

Here he emphasizes another key theme. "Many times in recent weeks and months, it is citizens who have given the tips that have led to the capture of leading terrorists and criminals," Baca says to a packed crowd at the Skirball Cultural Center. "That participation is a crucial element in containing domestic terror."

At the end of an exhausting shift punctuated by war news, there's barely time for the sheriff to reflect on it all.

The next day, though, Baca finds a moment in his corner office, showing off memorabilia given to him by Buck Owens (a country music guitar) to Sen. John McCain (a signed autobiography). "People ask me if this an inhuman sprint for me now that war with Iraq has started," says Baca. "I tell them this has been a marathon since 9/11 and we are just hitting stride."

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