In mid-November 2007, Deputy Chief Michael Downing, the head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, was facing a major problem. Earlier that month, he and his colleagues had announced a plan to map the city’s Muslim population; and the vociferous response from the community (including Muslim leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union), much of which felt the plan amounted to religious profiling, could not have been swifter. Explained Salam Al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “Muslim Americans were very disturbed and concerned about the ramifications of the plan and having their privacy invaded."
Downing and his colleagues immediately pulled the plug on a plan that many depicted as an abject failure. But speaking at the 2015 Public Safety Summit, the deputy chief explained how the shortfall was the start of his team’s success because he embraced the friction as “an opportunity [to] fail forward.” “Very quickly we shelved it,” Downing added, “rolled up our sleeves, went back to grassroots, and kind of started over.”
The result of the reboot was the 2008 release of the department’s plan for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), a multi-pronged effort to create effective and coordinated counterterrorism efforts across agencies, entities, and a wide array of communities. Seven years later, the program has done more than withstand local scrutiny; it has become a national model thanks to a new narrative focused on collective responsibility; its emphasis on collaboration; and a well-defined strategy that is complemented by technology and training.
Although Downing had not previously worked extensively on countering violent extremism, he had a sense of what it takes to resolve civil conflict in LA. A lifelong city resident, Downing was, as The New York Times reported, an officer during the Rodney King years, when the LAPD was overseen by the Justice Department. He knew what distrust could engender, and he did not like it. In the 1990s, when he was a captain in a mostly gay Hollywood neighborhood, he worked to repair the police department’s fractured relationship with that demographic. Suspecting that a lack of understanding was fueling the friction, he reached out to a transgender woman in the community and asked her to address his staff.
Using a similar blend of education and outreach, Downing established a regular forum to meet with Muslim leaders and educated himself through classes and travel. In the process, he came into contact with religious leaders who have publicly discussed their experience with overzealous policing in the Middle East. In an interview with The New York Times, Salam al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said, “We carried the psychological baggage of the secret police in the Middle East. We thought we’d left it and it would never happen here. Then it did.”
The dialogue impressed upon the chief that counter-terrorism must happen within a counter-narrative. Change the story and you change the approach, he thought. Change the approach and you change the world. Thus, the core tenets of the CVE were not militant or related to security; instead it emphasizes mutual respect and collective responsibility.
“The message,” Downing explained, “is it’s not a Muslim problem, it’s not a Jewish problem, it’s not a Coptic Christian problem, it’s not a Sikh problem, it’s a problem that humanity has to grasp and deal with and so everybody comes to the table so as we don’t single out the Muslim communities.”
Although fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect is the CVE’s foundational plank, Downing had to build on this with a carefully thought out strategy. Working in tandem with members of the Muslim community and other government agencies, the CVE coalesced into three phases: prevention, which aims to build healthy and safe communities and employ collaborative efforts to close gaps where extremist ideologies can surface; intervention, which entails offering “off-ramps” (especially mental health services) to individuals who seem prone to extremism; and interdiction, which involves using more traditional policing techniques (e.g., investigation, arrest, and prosecution) to disrupt extremist-related crimes.
The success of this approach hinges in part on collaboration. LAPD has forged partnerships with a range of religious and community groups, including mosques, synagogues, the Anti Defamation League, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Council of Pakistan-American Affairs. To enhance governmental collaboration, in 2011, Downing and his Liaison Unit joined the Interagency Coordination Group, bringing together the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the City of LA Human Relations Commission and federal partners, including the Department of Homeland Security, United States Attorney’s Office, and the FBI. The collective effect, says Downing, is to create a “powerhouse” focused on collaboratively strengthening communities.
Downing has also leveraged technology and recruited and trained a strong team to ensure that the CVE is implemented effectively across these diverse groups. At the Public Safety Summit, Downing highlighted social media (his team has a large Facebook presence) as CVE’s technological linchpin because it helps LAPD communicate a consistent message to a wide range of groups. He has also recruited diverse personnel—including a Pakistani-born Saudi Arabian, an Israeli-born Jew, and a Farsi-speaking Muslim—and given them and other local law enforcement groups extensive trainings—including seminars focused on cultural diversity and a search and rescue seminar at a mosque—to ensure their credibility and capacity. CVE is not just a message; it’s a highly developed strategy with a team of partners and well-trained team to implement it.
Earlier this year, nearly eight years after the failure of the mapping plan, Downing was again staring down the face of extremism. But this time he wasn’t doing it alone. In a video produced by LAPD, Downing sits behind his desk and describes his team’s progress; and he’s joined by a panoply of rabbis, Sikhs, government prosecutors, academics, and imams. The very people who opposed him and his plan seven years ago are now speaking by his side.
The broader display of community support does not guarantee the program’s success. As Downing noted at the Public Safety Summit, some community leaders expressed qualms after LAPD formed a partnership with the federal Department of Homeland Security in 2011 to form a local strategic engagement office. Within his office, he is also still trying to ramp up trainings to make sure that the organization exemplifies the different skillsets that are needed to connect and work with diverse communities. Finally, as he also noted at the Public Safety Summit, continued instability across the world means that extremism can continue to wend its way into major American cities like Los Angeles.
But there’s also growing evidence that the relationships that Downing has built are paying dividends. The Anti-Defamation League recently recognized Downing and his staff for their excellent work, and the video that he and his partners produced was shown at a White House event celebrating the work of his staff and their counterparts in two other cities (Boston and Minneapolis).
And therein lies a broader hint of Downing’s objective: even as he stares down violent extremism in Los Angeles, he believes that his metropolis’s ability to get multiple stakeholders to converge on the same goal can serve as an example for the country and the world. “America,” he said, “has the opportunity to create the type of model that the rest of the world could look at in terms of how the integration of these communities can contribute to the social fabric of society.”
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