City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Michael Downing, LAPD

File under 'better late than never'. NB: This is a write-up of a talk that took place at Postopolis! LA during April 2009. Notes are taken in real-time, with editing and context added afterward so reader beware. All Postopolis! LA entries are gathered here.

Bryan’s pulled off a real coup here. He’s only invited the Deputy-Chief of Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau for the LAPD to speak at Postopolis LA. (Later that year, Downing would become interim Chief of Police).

Bryan’s typically articulate and impassioned introduction contextualises LAPD as “one of the world’s largest police forces, bigger than the military forces of many small nations”, before Michael Downing steps forward. He’s burly, packed into a sleek suit, looking every inch the pro football player turned successful local businessman. As such, he’s highly incongruous amongst the crowd at the Standard’s rooftop bar. (Don’t get me wrong – a few more suits, literally and metaphorically, would not have been a bad thing, in a way.)

Michael Downing, LAPD

Downing is highly aware of this, and deflects it easily by indicating that this is “Not your normal setting … It’s kind of the antithesis of what I’m used to …”. He’s used to far more sterile buildings, apparently.

Michael Downing, LAPD (not pulling the California Uber Alles pose but instead indicating the trajectory of helicopters)

In fact, he says of the Standard rooftop that he’s “only seen it from the air, hot and low and rotors popping …”. This is something few other speakers can live up to.

To business. Downing commands two operational divisions, covering the bases of anti-terrorism, surveillance, organised crime etc., and working on information sharing.

If you’re wondering why he’s speaking at Postopolis! LA, Downing provides an answer straightaway – he sees counter terrorism in terms of “the way you think about space”. As in, “How do we build crime resistance or hostile environments to terrorism in that same space but have same sense of freedom and community.”

His background is in community policing, and in particular the “big rehabilitation of Hollywood”. The “philosophy of policing that community had to come from within.” He describes how the approach from the police became about partnerships, and “adopt(ing) blocks”. Their approach was to “build crime resistance into the community”

“There’s nothing worse than seeing an abandoned block – like seeing an abandoned car … And now we see people moving freely, sitting on the street, having a glass of wine, protected by plants and lighting …” (It’s already uncanny how close some of what Downing is saying gets to standard practice in urban design.)

He talks about the balance between “rule-based enforcement and care-based enforcement”, and knows that the balance has to be “somewhere in-between”. It wasn’t all touchy-feely – they had to ensure that they “pushed out the gangs as much as possible.”

Michael Downing, LAPD 

Downing then talks of the extraordinary expansion in this area in recent years. “Pre-9/11, we maybe had 25 people that did counter-terrorism. (In the) last few years it’s grown to 300. (Yet) you can’t arrest yourself, you can’t win the war on terrorism – it’s an ideology – you can’t win it.”

(Interesting to note that this is not something the incumbent government would’ve said with such easy clarity, presumably.)

Downing then offers the following definition: “Operational capability plus motivation = terrorism”

“What can we do on those 2 sides? (In terms of the first) they do hunt.” He says “There is no such thing as ‘the muslim community’ – there are muslim communities …”

Downing then lists some aspects of their somewhat extraordinary capacity.

He talks about ‘Arcangle’, their “critical infrastructure protection programme”, which is 85% owned by the private sector. Its role is to “assess vulnerabilities … (there are) 500 or so assets in the database (and it) makes recommendations to private sector (in terms of where to place) cameras, gates, guards, ingress/egress (Again, this is the LAPD in urban design mode, to some extent.)

They have  “regional video command centre, which can “link up all the private and public CCTV”.  

Whereas “‘Trapwire’ measures behaviours, actions, mannerisms”. This can deliver a feed direct to his Blackberry of “all the suspicious activity that occurred in the city that night, and overlaps with open surveillance cases.” He describes a “richer picture, more intelligence”. (This is somewhat unbelievable – the torrent of data that would unleash could not be parsed, particularly on his Blackberry, leaving aside such issues of what constitutes such behaviour.)

“So where is the ‘Ring of Steel’, as per London, and as they sort of do in Lower Manhattan”, asks Downing rhetorically. He says “you can’t actually put one in LA – it’s too vast and dispersed …” (Again, an understanding of this particular urban form drives a strategic response.)

They focus on airport, ports etc, and buildings under the “highest threat”. He gestures across to the adjacent buildings, pointing out that the “US Bank tower right opposite was on hitlist for 9/11”. They often “have a lot of suspicious activity going through whole area (captured in terms of) photographs, surveillance, sketches which could be pre-operational surveillance.” (That’s a choice phrase, that last one.)

They deploy “license-plate recognition systems” but he says that the “real ring of steel for LA is humans”. There are “45000 private security guards, building managers, the community, and so on.” To him, these are “all tripwires that alert us to things that go on, and they can then open up investigations. He has “50 people that follow tripwires, that’s all they do.”

(He’s getting carried away at this point …)

“We have something the size of a grain of rice and we can put it in your pocket and follow you around the world. We can take a fly and fly it into a room and it’s got audio visual …”

He stops and looks up at a helicopter that’s hovering overhead. He says it’s not one of his. “They don’t know I’m here”, he laughs. He thinks it might be the fire department …

Michael Downing, LAPD

He sees some links to the practice of blogging, in terms of building networks to solve problems. For instance, they have two main threats: Al Qaeda and Hizbollah. But then there are black separatists, white supremacists, eco-terrorists … They have to “take a network-based approach” rather than “hub vs. hierarchical” forms. So they’re looking to “build more networks”, and he talks of a “regional public/private infrastructure collaboration system (which can) push information out every day (but also) solicit information too.” This gives an “all channel network” as he puts it.

Downing defines the “real success of policing (as) only giving adequate force to enable the community to police itself – people are police and police are people – and the community takes more responsibility.” (Again, echoes of some debates in contemporary urban planning.)

He again reiterates that “we can’t win war on terrorism (but) what we try to do in LA is to protect our city from terrorism.” The “threat is always evolving, so tactics and strategies have to change.”

“We’ve been pretty lucky”, he concludes.

He says the “failure of 9/11 was intelligence. There were 16 federal intelligence agencies each of whom protected their turf.” On the “second day of the new administration, they did an exercise with all heads – on multi-scenario attack” (Similar to the 7/7 bombings in London.) They concluded that the ”single point of failure was information sharing. If you have the good things about ‘culture, capability and awareness’ but still combine with jurisdictional responsibility and boundaries, you still have a single point of failure.”

“But if you have all channel networks”, he says “you have no single point of failure.”

Michael Downing, LAPD

The Q&A features a few questions about the openness of data. I ask him whether the crime maps might inadvertently heighten anxiety rather than assuage fears. He artfully evades the question, I think. He talks a lot about approaches to garnering “feeds from people all over city, all the time.” They have antennae on numerous buildings enabling upload of video link. They can push this to his Blackberry and he’ll be able to see anything within 450 sq miles …” He describes this  as “a digital nervous system within the city …” (Again, I think the ability to generate vast volumes of such data does not naturally lead to a heightened ability to parse, comprehend information and then deriving meaning from such data, particularly on devices with interfaces as stunted as the Blackberry’s is. See also: drones already generate more data than the US military can handle)

Another questioner wonders about a “military doctrine affecting the urban police force – is there a shared relationship between the LAPD and military?” Again, slightly dodging the question, Downing says they “travel the four corners of the world” to stay on top of thinking. In the first quarter of this year, they’ve been in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia etc. He talks about an ‘Irregular Warfare Support Group’ in Virginia, and says that “cities are in a post-conflict zone” . The “philosophy of the military is control and contain through force or fear (whereas) police is occasionally that, but is better when you’re inspiring community”. What they are trying to do, he says, is “solicit the help and inspiration of people to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods and communities and partner with the police.” In fact, he says, they may end up “teaching military units how to police …”

Another question concerns the wave of foreclosures sweeping across the land. Does this lead to  new communities on vulnerability?

He says they “watch crime closely”, and use sophisticated software to do so. Chief Bratton brought ‘CompStat’ to LA (from NYC), and this means that, for the police, “everything is a number, dot, statistic”. He can now say that “Southern LA has gone down every year for 6 years … things have slowed down …” However, he does note “the slow-down in construction, and if some of the buildings won’t be finished and abandoned, that would be a great fear for us”. He refers back to his experience in Hollywood, and the issues with “slum conditions”. 

However, he says that LA has another major issue: “The gang problem is something that plagues us. LA gave birth to gangs – there are 85000 gang members and 1300 gangs.”

“It’s as much a threat as terrorism”, he says.

Geoff and I both ask him about this emerging notion that the LAPD might end up having some kind of architectural or urban design function – or ‘spatial counter-intelligence’ division, perhaps. On the one hand, does a new, poorly designed high rise send shivers of fear throughout the department? Are they harder to police than a cul-de-sac, say? Would the LAPD end up effectively working in architecture and urban design more formally, pursuing this theme of shaping the city to enable communities to police themselves to its logical conclusion?

Downing finds the idea intriguing, I think. He refers to the social problems that arise when architecture is found wanting, referencing a specific project in which military housing was converted into public housing. “*There was) nothing about that sustains community, crime resistance or socialisation”, he says. “(We need) to build in elements of how community is going to socialise within itself or outside”. He also suggests that a “diverse multidiscipline group” would be highly useful here. He later suggests that meetings with with architects and designers, during the early design phase of project. Before certain projects, he thinks it might be of value to have a counter-terrorism security adviser (leaving open the question of which projects.)

 It was a fascinating talk, and Downing is a compelling, interesting speaker, with what is clearly a relatively open-minded and inquisitive approach to an almost impossibly complex area. His rhetoric was close to that of an architect or urban designer at times – in terms of shaping space to enable community – never mind that of urban informatics, with its various “digital urban nervous systems”. Yet there was a line – a hard line you suspect – that divides him from contemporary thinking in urbanism.

Equally, while he seemed to be fully aware that focusing on ‘security, risk, threat’ can have the impact of heightening collective anxiety rather than diminishing it, those various strategic programmes – ‘Arcangle, Trapwire’ etc. – did feel in tension with the idea of the ‘community policing itself’.

And watching him briefly get carried away about the various technologies of surveillance at his disposal was vaguely unsettling, to say the least. Yet I was impressed with his candour and, in general, his thinking. While he may have been ‘playing the crowd’, it was no more so than the rest of us. And kudos for simply turning up to an event that I suspect many of his ilk wouldn’t even recognise as such. 

The relationship between the control of citizens and the design of cities has been long-discussed and is deeply contested (e.g. the ‘Haussmannisation of Paris’, perhaps most famously), but that the way the LAPD approach their work might have something in common with architecture and urban design is a beguiling idea, and Downing had the wit to explore it in accessible and meaningful fashion – even if his talk left as many questions hanging in the air over downtown LA as there were helicopters circling overhead.


2 responses to “Michael Downing, Deputy-Chief of Counter-Terrorism for LAPD (Postopolis! LA)”

  1. Fernando Avatar

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  2. Kaafir Avatar

    Michael Downing, LAPD Counter-Terrorism Deputy Chief is a idiot and a traitor to America, he should not even be doing what he is doing. He says that sharia law is not a threat to our constitution, he is wrong, dead wrong. Sharia law and islam is a political ideology and a dangerous one and should not be used in America. You can beat terrorists if you quit putting them in our government and sucking up to them. This guy needs to be kicked out of our government.


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