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Sandy Hook massacre creates 'new reality,' LAPD chief says

December 17, 2012 |  6:13 pm

The Los Angeles Police Department plans to significantly increase its presence at the city's more than 540 public elementary and middle schools, with Chief Charlie Beck saying the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., has created a “new reality” his department must address.

In outlining his plan Monday, Beck said his goal is for uniformed officers to visit the public school campuses on a daily basis, a major change in LAPD deployment strategy that will place additional logistical stress on a police force already stretched thin by the city’s fiscal crisis.

“Somebody in a uniform is going to stop by every day at these schools,” Beck said in an interview Monday.

The chief stressed that he and his aides are still drawing up details of the plan, which he said will begin when students return from winter break early next month. Any private or charter school that wants to be included will be, he added.

Until Friday, Beck said, he and his command staff didn't spend much time thinking or worrying about elementary schools. The school walls, he trusted, effectively sealed off the youngest of the city’s students from whatever violence or other crimes may be unfolding outside them. The relatively small number of LAPD officers assigned to school issues focused almost entirely on the high schools.

“After all,” Beck said of elementary school children, “these are supposed to be one the safest places in their worlds.”

Those assumptions crumbled for Beck when a gunman stormed Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday, killing 20 first-graders and six faculty members before himself.

The shooting, Beck said, has forced him to “recalibrate" his department "to this new reality.”

“A barrier has been broken in our culture,” Beck added at a press conference Monday. “It's our job ... all of our jobs, to make sure that we resurrect that barrier and make our children safe.”

He tempered expectations, saying the amount of time officers spend at the schools will be relatively brief, since the daily visits will occur as part of their regular patrol duties. Although it won’t be possible all the time because of changing work schedules, Beck said he wants it to be the same officer or two checking in on a school so they can become familiar to the faculty and students.

Getting to each of the 457 elementary schools and 86 middle schools in the city will require diverting about 1,200 officers each day from their regular assignments, Beck estimated. Although manageable, he conceded that the new responsibility will further strain stations that sometimes have only a handful of patrol cars on the streets in a given shift.

“Logistically, it’s a big deal,” he said. “But it’s us recognizing a new priority and that there is a new reality.”

The LAPD’s is the most aggressive of several moves being made by Southern California law enforcement agencies in the wake of the Connecticut shooting.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department announced it would be increasing patrols around schools in its jurisdiction and making regular visits to the campuses. Most of the roughly 1,000 schools in the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District are  in territory patrolled by the two agencies.

Police in Long Beach have been ordered to do the same, with Chief Jim McDonnell directing his officers to conduct foot patrols that he called “walk and talks” on school campuses.

Beck and L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy were challenged on whether the new measures could have prevented an incident similar to the one at Sandy Hook.

“It’s a heck of a lot better than if an LAPD officer is not assigned to the school,” Deasy replied.

Deasy also made clear that the school district’s own, much smaller, police force is incapable of touching base with every school, every day. To do so, the district would have to triple its $52-million annual security budget, said Deasy.

Beck acknowledged that his plan would not shield a school entirely against an attack but said the officer visits would occur at different times of day and, so, leave a would-be attacker guessing about security on a campus. And although the Connecticut school had strong security measures in place, he said the death toll would probably have been far lower if a police officer had been on campus when Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman, arrived.

The plan, he added, will hopefully ease safety concerns and give officers a better chance of intercepting someone bent on doing something violent.

“Obviously, there is a feel-good, assurance part of it designed to give parents and students some confidence in the safety at their schools. But it is also about trying to increase the chances of putting us at the right place at the right time if something does happen,” Beck said.

Not everyone was impressed by the idea of daily random visits from officers.

“That seems sort of bizarre, totally ineffective and unnecessary,” said David Dobson, a parent and PTA leader in the neighboring Burbank Unified School District. Dobson said he understood the motivation but dismissed the plan as an empty gesture. “When something like this happens, people feel obliged to do something to make people feel like something has changed so now it can’t happen to them.”

Beck’s concerns, however, were underscored over the weekend when LAPD officers arrested a 24-year-old man for allegedly threatening online to carry out attacks like the one in Newtown at several local elementary schools. Authorities seized nine guns from the East Hollywood home where the man was found, although on Monday prosecutors declined to file charges because the comments had been too vague. Police in Diamond Bar are also looking into allegations that a 14-year-old student at Canyon View Junior High School threatened to bring a gun to campus and kill a teacher last week.

-- Joel Rubin, Howard Blume and Andrew Blankstein