Why L.A. police nixed plan to map Muslims

The flap over the antiterror proposal pushes officers to forge new community ties.

A high-profile police plan to map Los Angeles's Muslim population to pinpoint possible terror risks – a plan abruptly withdrawn last week – is an object lesson for US law enforcement in the era after 9/11, say policing experts.

Los Angeles, a bastion of ethnic diversity, has been a pioneer in community policing. And even though the plan to map Muslim areas is viewed as a public relations blunder, the swift response to scrap it is evidence that American police tactics are changing for the better, if only slowly, analysts say.

"This shows how deep a challenge it is for police leaders who are trying to balance the concerns of citizens about national security and the issue of terrorism," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington. "Twenty years ago, you would have more likely seen a police department that would bully straight ahead with this over these heated objections."

The Los Angeles Police Department's counterterrorism bureau proposed using US census data and other demographic information to pinpoint various Muslim communities that are likely to become isolated and vulnerable to "violent, ideologically based extremism,'' Deputy Chief Michael Downing reportedly said recently. The LAPD had planned to partner with the University of Southern California's National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events to assess possible terror risks.

After widespread criticism by both Muslim and other religious leaders, the LAPD scrapped the plan Nov. 15.

"It was quite clear from the community of Muslim leaders in L.A. that this was … ill conceived and something they could not partner in," said Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, standing on stage with a dozen leading Muslim leaders in Los Angeles after hearing their concerns in a formal meeting Thursday.

To some, the controversial proposal shows how far law enforcement still has to go toward protecting individual rights.

"If a police chief like William Bratton, who is considered one of America's finest, had the naiveté to think this idea would work, we can't say that community policing in America has come very far since the days of Rodney King," says Mary Powers, president of the National Coalition on Police Accountability. "It shows that there still needs to be a lot more proactive interaction between police and the communities they serve."

She agreed with the clerics and others who protested outside LAPD headquarters last week, saying what was put forth amounted to profiling that is unconstitutional and hurtful to innocent Muslims.

"This program … poisons the atmosphere," said the Rev. Peter Laarman, of Progressive Christians Uniting. "When people hear about the plan, they think that Muslims are bad."

But Mr. Williams says Mr. Bratton's willingness to nix the plan shows the strength of community policing. He notes that since the early 1990s, American police departments have hired more minorities, immigrants, and women and have a more professionally trained leadership.

Muslims leaders praised Bratton's decision. "This is the first great step toward a healthy dialogue between the Muslim community and the LAPD, and it is definitely a great step toward democracy," said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Bratton and LAPD brass said they would work out a more amenable plan for police and Muslims to build a community partnership. Several Muslim leaders said it is up to police to initiate ideas and then vet them with Muslim leaders.

This has been a successful approach elsewhere. The Coalition of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), for example has been working with police groups and civic, church, and other community organizations for more than 10 years, says Ms. Powers.

"We decided 15 years ago that reaching out to police was good idea," says Imam Malik Mujahid, chairman of CIOGC. "The support goes both ways. We have seen how, despite a small number of police who violate codes of conduct, most try to protect us … so we see how hard they have worked for Muslims since 9/11."

Back in L.A., many were pleased with the meeting's outcome, but civil rights groups say they will monitor LAPD's future endeavors. "We have a long history with this police department of profiling all sorts of members of the community from political dissidents to black nationalists to Latinos," says Ranjana Natarajan, an attorney with the ACLU. "Everybody is fair game for this police department, and we are going to make sure that it this profiling comes to an end."

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