Closing Down L.A. Schools: What Just Happened?

Joe Domanick

Joe Domanick

The unprecedented decision by Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines to shut the city's more than 900 schools yesterday, has left a lot of people here in LA gap-mouthed, and wondering why over 650,000 students needed to be pulled out of school buses and sent home during rush hour, over what turned out to be an empty threat.

The threat came in the form of emails to school board members, and mentioned both assault weapons and explosives, thereby echoing the modus operandi of the two Muslim assailants who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, CA, last week.

Essentially the same threat had been sent to New York City officials, who chose not to close New York's schools. Later, LA's own congressional representative Adam Schiff— who serves as the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence—declared the threat a hoax.

Even before Schiff's announcement, however, questions and criticism had begun, the most pointed coming from Bill Bratton, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and now Police Commissioner of New York City, and the city's mayor, Bill de Blasio. They seemed directed at Bratton's protégé, current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

Asked if he was concerned, Bratton replied that he'd spoken earlier with the FBI, and quickly concluded that it wasn't a “credible threat,” and that “what we would be concerned about was overreacting to it (emphasis mine). We'll stay aware, stay involved, but at all costs we can't start over-reacting to what might probably be a series of copy-cat initiatives.”

De Blasio referred to the email threat as “genetic and outlandish.” That could just be their opinion, but at this stage it sure does sound right.

And that raises questions: did the mayor's office, the LAPD, and the school district have a plan in the eventuality of a crisis or potential crisis like the one that just occurred? There seems to have been no contingency plan, no protocols about who will decide what action should be taken in such a situation—nor who will announce it, and who then will speak for the city.

Have there been any agreements made with the schools and other public safety organizations about what part of a crisis each of the organizations will handle?

The first of job of a mayor and his police chief in such events is to reduce public anxiety.But the way it was handled in Los Angeles only increased it.

You want them standing together at a microphone, speaking as one, to reassure the public, and let people know exactly what's happening. Instead, the outgoing schools superintendent Ramon Cortines was left to both make the decision and the announcement.

And you can't help but ask what he knows about evaluating a security threat and making a decision, especially now, when Southern California is so on edge.

Chief Beck says that making such a decision is hard. Yes it is. But Bratton called the FBI and discussed the threat, as did Beck. In fairness to the chief, New York City handles these kinds of threats on a more routine basis than L.A. and has by far the most experienced and largest intelligent apparatus outside of the federal government.

The decision had to be made very swiftly. But still, America's second largest city looked remarkably unprepared to handle an event its police department should have been prepared for. In short, at the very least, the optics were terrible. The ball was punted to Cortines–instead of having the chief and mayor jointly owning the decision.

In that regard, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti put the final embarrassing touch to the whole incident.

Stepping up to the podium during a news conference, he announced that “the decision to close our schools is not mine to [make], but it is mine to support.”

Joe Domanick is Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, and Los Angeles bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers' comments.

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