L.A. steps up security measures during holiday season after Berlin market killings

Expect to see heightened security at Los Angeles shopping areas, farmers markets and other large gathering places in the coming days as authorities step up security measures in the wake of the Berlin Christmas market truck attack that killed 12 people this week.

Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Michael Downing said Tuesday that his counter-terrorism bureau has been aware for some time of the potential danger from attackers using trucks or other large vehicles to run down pedestrians.

In many places with heavy pedestrian traffic, concrete pillars are already in place to prevent someone from driving a truck onto the sidewalk. But, Downing said, additional barriers, including the use of large vehicles, can be deployed to block potential attackers from accessing open pedestrian areas.

“We are talking to captains in precincts where there are large mass gatherings, be it farmers markets or shoppers,” Downing said. “We are encouraging the use of vehicles and other barriers to protect the crowds.”

Other major law enforcement agencies are also taking extra precautions.

Scott Edson, chief of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s Homeland Security Division, said his department is planning additional security measures to protect crowds at large gatherings in the coming weeks and days, but declined to provide specifics.

“What we are doing is reminding everyone that one of the easiest ways to make a weapon of terror is to use a large truck or vehicle,” he said.

New York police said Tuesday that they too were taking extra precautions to deter a truck attack. The agency said it has assigned additional officers to patrol potential targets, but did not provide specifics.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Berlin market attack through its Amaq news site, saying it had been carried out by an unidentified “soldier.” The language used suggested the attacker may have been inspired by the group but did not necessarily act on its orders. Police caught a 23-year-old man after the 40-ton truck careened through the crowd Monday, injuring 48 people in addition to causing the dozen deaths. But that man was released Tuesday.

In Los Angeles, Downing noted there was no specific credible threat of an attack planned for the holiday season, but encouraged members of the public to use the LAPD’s iWatch app to make a report if they see suspicious activity.

Heightened security in local areas often follows deadly terrorist attacks elsewhere. In the wake of last year’s coordinated attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, security was increased at popular shopping areas and public transportation depots across Los Angeles County. Local authorities now view bus and railway stations, malls and event venues on par with the Rose Bowl and Dodger Stadium when it comes to risk assessment.

Terrorism by truck has long been feared by law enforcement »

Experts say installing barriers, closing off nearby access roads and adding armed security guards can act as a deterrent to attacks on so-called soft targets.

“We can harden the target,” Downing said.

The method used in this week’s Berlin attack, he said, is not new but a reminder that something as ordinary as a truck can be turned into an instrument of terrorism in heavily populated areas without much security. 

The danger first emerged in the 1980s with attacks in Lebanon using truck bombs. That concern was reinforced by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which used a Ryder truck, and the 1993 World Trade Center attack in New York. 

July’s attack in Nice, France, again illustrated the risks when a 19-ton truck plowed into a crowd assembled for a fireworks display, killing 86 people. And last month, an Ohio State student drove a car into a crowd at the university before attacking bystanders with a knife, injuring at least 11 people.

“Nice, Ohio and now Berlin all show the danger,” Downing said, noting that an Islamic State publication recently included a basic guide on using trucks to inflict mayhem and death.

Downing said the LAPD is contacting local truck yards to ask proprietors to keep an eye on their vehicles to prevent thefts and to immediately report any suspicious activity.

“People need to be aware of their surroundings,” he said. 

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