By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 200 Los Angeles police officers — most dressed in T-shirts and jeans, a quarter of them women — slouch into chairs in three different classrooms at the LAPD’s Westchester recruit training academy to stare at an instructional video involving goats wearing gas masks. Actually, only two of the three goats on the screen have masks strapped over their snouts; the third goes without. All at once, a thick gaseous substance can be seen wafting in the animals’ direction. (Instructors are quick to point out that both film and goats are of World War II vintage.) Moments after the gas — which turns out to be hydrogen cyanide — reaches them, the maskless goat plus goat number two (a creature who, we are told, is wearing an inferior gas mask) collapses to the ground and, with a couple of unpleasant shudders, dies. Only goat three, which is purportedly wearing a top-grade U.S. Army gas mask, remains healthy and standing.
Welcome to Module 6: Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the Los Angeles Police Department’s newest continuing-education course, a sort of Counterterrorism 101 that all officers of the rank of lieutenant and below are currently required to attend. The idea behind the eight-hour class is that, if the unthinkable happens, the first responders will likely be the average Jane and Joe officer on the street.
The class begins at noon sharp. By 20 minutes into the presentation, there is still audible mumbling about the difficulty of staying awake until 8 p.m., when the class ends. This seat shifting subsides a bit during the power-point presentation covering all the possible biological, nuclear, incendiary, chemical and explosive agents that terrorists — foreign and homegrown — might conceivably use to kill us. This includes such cheering items as dirty bombs (conventional explosives packed with radioactive materials, a combo al Qaeda used, albeit without complete detonation, in the first World Trade Center bombing); Ricin, a delayed-action cell toxin derived from the castor-bean plant that some whack-job militia-types from Minnesota (among others) were caught manufacturing in 1991; plus the various deadly substances that may be prepared using common chlorine.
Still, it isn’t until the goat film that everybody really snaps to attention.
Halfway through the day, the officers-students are divided up into smaller groups for “tabletop” exercises. These consist of hypothetical scenarios that each group must explore and analyze. Two scenarios involve imagined terrorist attacks in well-known L.A. locations. In a third, officers are asked what they’d do if, on a routine traffic stop, they happen to notice the driver has in his back seat a propane tank, a gas mask, some weird-looking objects and a map to LAX.
“Dude, you are soarrested,” yells one ultra-muscled traffic officer.
By the end of the day, most attendees appear to be reeling with a case of TMI — Too Much Information. And, although the course seems intelligently designed, other than the broad strokes, it is difficult to say how much is being retained. “Ideally this would be a three-day course,” says lead course designer Lieutenant Bill Murphy. “But we don’t have three days, so we felt it was better to overload everybody with information, rather than not give them enough.” Out of the glut of facts, severl points stand out:
• If you walk into a crime scene and people are choking, seizing, running at the nose or unconscious, this is not a good sign. (If you find that all the animals on scene are dead, this is a much worse sign. If the insects are dead too, you’re truly screwed.)
• In case of exposure to a questionable substance, the best on-hand decontaminating substance is plain old water. Cold, not hot.
• The majority (70 percent) of terrorist attacks involve explosives. But if one bomb has gone off, chances are there will be two, the second one timed to take out the crowd of cops, firefighters and onlookers who have gathered in response to the first. In the Bali bombing last year, for example, of the two devices, one went off prematurely. Had they detonated minutes apart as planned, the casualties would have been much, much higher.
• Don’t buy your own gas mask at the Army surplus store. Use only department-approved masks unless you want to risk joining the ill-fated goats.
The subject of goats and masks raises another pesky issue for the department as it wrestles with what its role ought to be in a Code Orange world. At present, each division has around 200 gas masks, not enough for every officer, but probably sufficient for all on-duty folks, in case of a disaster. However, the gas masks are decades old and require replacement filters to function. The various divisions indeed have a supply of replacement filters. Yet officers claim that most of the replacement filters have a 1985 sell-by date, with a six-year window on effectiveness after that. (I’ve looked at these filters, and they are indeed dated a not very reassuring 1985.) “In other words, they’re worthless,” says an officer who used to work anti-terrorism. “Even if they were up-to-date,” admits Captain Sergio Diaz, acting head of the department’s training division, “they’re designed for crowd control, not counterterrorism.” Meaning, they filter out Mace and tear gas, not sarin, or hydrogen cyanide.