An extensive mapping program launched by the LAPD’s anti-terrorism bureau to identify Muslim enclaves across the city sparked outrage Thursday from some Islamic groups and civil libertarians, who denounced the effort as an exercise in racial and religious profiling.
Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing, who heads the bureau, defended the undertaking as a way to help Muslim communities avoid the influence of those who would radicalize Islamic residents and advocate “violent, ideologically-based extremism.”
“We are seeking to identify at-risk communities,” Downing said in an interview Thursday evening. “We are looking for communities and enclaves based on risk factors that are likely to become isolated. . . . We want to know where the Pakistanis, Iranians and Chechens are so we can reach out to those communities.”
Downing added that the Muslim Public Affairs Council has embraced the vaguely defined program “in concept.” The group’s executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, said Thursday that it wanted to know more about the plan and had a meeting set with the LAPD next week.
“We will work with the LAPD and give them input, while at the same time making sure that people’s civil liberties are protected,” said Al-Marayati, who commended Downing for being “very forthright in his engagement with the Muslim community.”
Others condemned the project, however.
“We certainly reject this idea completely,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. “This stems basically from this presumption that there is homogenized Muslim terrorism that exists among us.”
Syed said he is a member of Police Chief William J. Bratton’s forum of religious advisors, but had not been told of the community mapping program. “This came as a jolt to me,” Syed said.
Hussam Ayloush, who leads the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the mapping “basically turns the LAPD officers into religious political analysts, while their role is to fight crime and enforce the laws.”
During Oct. 30 testimony before Congress, Downing described the program broadly as an attempt to “mitigate radicalization.” At that time, he said law enforcement agencies nationwide faced “a vicious, amorphous and unfamiliar adversary on our land.”
Downing and other law enforcement officials said police agencies around the world are dealing with radical Muslim groups that are isolated from the larger community, making potential breeding groups for terrorism. He cited terror cells in Europe as well as the case of some Muslim extremists in New Jersey arrested in May for allegedly planning to bomb Ft. Dix.
“We want to map the locations of these closed, vulnerable communities, and in partnership with these communities . . . help [weave] these enclaves into the fabric of the larger society,” he said in his testimony.
“To do this, we need to go into the community and get to know peoples’ names,” he said. “We need to walk into homes, neighborhoods, mosques and businesses.”
To assemble the mapping data, Downing said in an interview Thursday, the LAPD intends to enlist USC’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, which was founded four years ago with $12 million in federal funds.
In 2003, university officials said the center would focus on threats to power plants, telecommunications and transportation systems.
It recently was tapped to strengthen security at Los Angeles International Airport.
Downing said the effort would not involve spying on neighborhoods. He said it would identify groups, not individuals.
“This has nothing to do with intelligence,” he said, comparing it to market research.
But in his congressional testimony, Downing said the LAPD hoped to identify communities that “may be susceptible to violent, ideologically-based extremism and then use a full-spectrum approach guided by an intelligence-led strategy.”
Downing told lawmakers the program would “take a deeper look at the history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status and social interactions.”
He added that the project was in its very early stages, and that its cost and full scope have not been determined.
“Physically the work has not begun,” Downing said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and some community groups sent a letter Thursday to Downing expressing “grave concerns” about the program and asking for a meeting.
“The mapping of Muslim communities . . . seems premised on the faulty notion that Muslims are more likely to commit violent acts than people of other faiths,” the letter states.
ACLU Executive Director Ramona Ripston compared the program to the Red Scare of the 1950s and said: “This is nothing short of racial profiling.”
But Al-Marayati said he believed that Downing was working in good faith.
“He is well-known in the Muslim community,” he said. “He’s been in a number of mosques and been very forthright in his engagement with the Muslim community.”
Times staff writers Francisco Vara-Orta, Andrew Blankstein and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.