CNN has a preliminary take on the email threat that drove Los Angeles to shutter all the schools in the LA Unified School District on Tuesday.
It appears that the same threat was received in Los Angeles and New York Tuesday morning. It was ultimately deemed to be a hoax, something that federal authorities say they thought from the beginning. The authorities in New York City came to the same conclusion, and didn’t mount a big reaction to it.
But the LAUSD schools have been closed all day, as law enforcement conducted an intensive search. In a press update around noon, LA Police Chief Charlie Beck defended the LAUSD superintendent, Ramon Cortines, for his early-morning decision. (I watched the update here.)
A former DEA agent contacted by CNN said that reacting dramatically to the threat was exactly the wrong thing to do.
David Katz, a former special agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency, told CNN that New York made the right call and Ramon Cortines, the Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent, made “a big mistake.”
“You do not under any circumstance take action unless the threat is corroborated,” Katz said. “For example, if a high-rise office building gets a bomb threat in New York City, the police department is not going to come over and evacuate your building absent some credible information.”
Katz said Cortines should not have been the one to make the decision to shut down schools.
“You need somebody with a little background in this area to make that determination, to say this threat warrants closing the school system,” Katz said. “This one just warrants an absolute increase in security and police presence, of course, but not the disruption of the entire school day for that many children. It’s just not the right move to make.”
Which is no doubt good advice, although it’s hard to fault Cortines, Chief Beck, or LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, for their better-safe-than-sorry stance. We don’t know how New Yorkers would have reacted if there had been a terrorist massacre in the greater NYC area two weeks ago.
Superintendent Ramon Cortines pointed out that LAUSD is no stranger to threats; it gets them “all the time,” and the district leadership is hardly inexperienced in handling them.
The emailed threat was reportedly forwarded through a server in Germany, although LA investigators think it came from an originator “much closer.” The threat purported to be from a group of “Muslims extremists,” according to network news accounts from this afternoon. References to “nerve gas” and a pornographic term were reportedly taken by federal analysts to indicate that the threat was probably a hoax.
NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton (who was in Los Angeles before taking the NYC job) stated fairly early on that his department felt comfortable deeming it a hoax.
Finger-pointing seems unhelpful at this juncture. We have America’s two biggest cities, both experienced in handling threats to the public infrastructure, making different judgment calls on what to do. It’s a lesson in what a jittery public can expect from metropolitan governments on alert for very real threats in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack on 2 December.
As a member of that public, I can appreciate the hold-the-line posture of the NYC authorities. Great cities can’t spend their time jumping to the tune of cheap hoax threats. In fact, it can interfere with their vigilance and situational awareness to do so.
But it’s hard to feel seriously critical of LA’s choice today. I’d rather learn a lesson this way than learn it by seeing children killed. I don’t think there are that many Angelenos who would disagree with me. LA can “get it right” next time.
One last point. Anyone who’s done at least one full hitch in the military recognizes where we are today, in the streets of our own cities. It’s a constant fact of military reality that our men and women in uniform are expected to keep America’s vigilance and reaction posture correct, without wasting the taxpayer’s expensive resources – but also without ever getting it wrong. Because when the military gets it wrong, America takes a major hit.
NYC and LA – and other cities across the nation – have been handed the same wartime-security problem.