L.A. arsons: Coordination among agencies, with public credited in arrest

Harry Burkhart has been charged in the four-day arson spree in Los Angeles. Several officials have spoken glowingly of the collective work of a quickly constituted joint task force.

Nick Ut/AP
The charred remains of cars are seen in a burned Los Angeles apartment building carport Monday. Twelve more suspected arson fires broke out early Monday in the Los Angeles area, and Harry Burkhart, a German national in his 20s who was living in Hollywood, was taken into custody for questioning in connection with the four-day arson spree that hit the city.

Law-enforcement officials have charged a suspect in the four-day arson spree in Los Angeles – and many are calling it a model of coordination not just between five separate local and federal agencies, but also with the civilian community.

As the streets of North Hollywood and other L.A. communities pulsated with police and fire-engine sirens, helicopters buzzed overhead in response to the eruption of some 55 fires between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2. On Sunday morning, police released a shopping-mall surveillance video to the public, and by 10 p.m. that night, a tipster had identified the ponytailed man seen in the images. By 3 a.m., a rookie police officer had stopped and taken into custody Harry Burkhart, a German national in his 20s who was living in Hollywood.

"Our long, four-day nightmare is over," said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky at a press conference Monday, who himself lives just a few blocks from one of the fires allegedly started by Mr. Burkhart. “I want to thank city and county fire departments, the LAPD, and the [federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] for the incredible job they did for the people of the West Valley and West Hollywood.”

Forty-five fires occurred in the Los Angeles area, another nine were in West Hollywood, and one was in Burbank, according to Erik Scott, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Most were burning cars and fires in carports.

Several officials – including LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and LAFD Chief Brian Cummings – spoke glowingly of the collective work of a quickly constituted joint task force, which was made up of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Fire Department, and members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The remarks have been echoed by national observers.

“This has been a very unusual level of cooperation between different agencies and levels of government, and to have pulled it off over a holiday weekend makes it all the more remarkable,” says Mary Powers, president of the National Coalition on Police Accountability in Chicago. “The fact that a citizen tipped them off also points to a positive relationship the LAPD has been able to establish with the city. Police watchdog groups didn’t know if the level of cooperation established by [former police chief William] Bratton would continue after his retirement.”

The LAPD’s reputation, she notes, has suffered deeply over the past two decades from incidents ranging from the Rodney King beating to a scandal involving hundreds of officers accused of planting evidence. But this is the second time since May that the LAPD has arrested a key suspect with the help of citizens. In the first incident, the LAPD thanked the public for 700 leads they gave that led to the apprehension of a suspect in the March 31 beating of San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow at Dodger Stadium.

“This shows how the force as a whole seems to have made [Mr. Bratton’s] advances in crime fighting their own,” Ms. Powers says. “They are continuing to work well with the public, unlike police in other large cities, certainly here in Chicago.”

Because of a comment that Burkhart apparently made while being taken into custody, early speculation was that he may have been battling the US government over the immigration status of his mother, who is reportedly being deported. But officials emphasized they don’t know if this had anything to do with why he allegedly set the fires.

The fires have caused an estimated $3 million in damage, authorities said.

More information is likely to come out about Burkhart in coming days, officials say. "By no means is this investigation complete," noted Mayor Villaraigosa.

Officials cautioned Los Angelenos not to let down their guard just because a suspect is in custody.

“We want the public to know that our big concern now is that he may not have acted alone,” said Chief Beck in a Monday evening press conference. “The Sheriff’s Department, the LAPD, and the fire department are now acting with the premise that he did not act alone.”

Burkhart is currently being held without bail.

Villaraigosa admonished potential copycatters, "These crimes will not be tolerated in the city of Los Angeles." He added that should anyone mimic one, "know that we will find you, we will arrest you, and we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to L.A. arsons: Coordination among agencies, with public credited in arrest
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today