Israeli organized crime activity in Los Angeles has gotten "a little bit worse" recently, a senior Los Angeles Police Department official told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Michael P. Downing, deputy chief of the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, was in Tel Aviv on Monday and Tuesday to take part in the Safe City Solutions Conference, which attracted security experts from around the world to examine ways of tackling violent urban crime and terrorism.
Downing said Israeli crime rings in his city were active in the fields of real estate, fraud, money laundering and narcotics.
A sizable portion of Israeli mob activity takes place abroad, as seen in the cases of alleged Israeli crime barons Meir and Itzik Abergil, who are set to be extradited to the US on charges of smuggling ecstasy and a host of other crimes, and the arrest of mob kingpin Ze'ev Rozenstein in 2004, on a US extradition warrant.
The Abergil brothers were arrested by Israeli police in August 2008 after the FBI charged them with membership in a hierarchical criminal organization, drug dealing, money laundering and several other offenses. Additionally, Itzik Abergil has been accused by the FBI of involvement in the murder of Sammy Atias, an alleged Israeli drug dealer in Los Angeles, after suspecting Atias of stealing money from him. The Abergils deny all charges.
"Organized crime exists because there's money to be made in the black market. All that activity draws away money from the economy," Downing said.
An intimate knowledge of the main players was crucial in dealing with the phenomenon, he added.
"It's a really complex problem," Downing said, referring to the phenomenon of organized crime in general.
"From what we're seeing, there's been a little bit of convergence between terrorism and organized crime," he added. "They take advantage of each other's resources, logistics and trade routes."
The October 30 gun attack on two men in a North Hollywood synagogue had all the appearances of a terrorist attack at first, before police realized that the shootings were crime-related, Downing recalled.
"I was out on that scene," Downing said. "En route, I called Rabbi [Abraham] Cooper [the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in LA], and asked him to meet me out there. I also called a Muslim community leader, and told him, 'I need your help on this.' I wanted to get these two communities working together," Downing said.
After arriving at the synagogue, Downing quickly realized it was not a terrorist attack.
"The two victims had been kneecapped. That's not indicative of terrorism. It resembled a targeted, surgical strike," said the deputy chief.
"Within a few hours we were able to say that this was in no way linked to terror," he added.
"They were targeted as part of a stern warning linked to a criminal organization," Downing said.
Downing said law enforcement agencies cannot "attack this asymmetric threat - of terrorism and organized crime - with a hierarchical model. Sometimes you need to fight asymmetric threats with asymmetric means."
"If you have mayors who run city police departments, the big players would normally be known. This also works with gangs and narcotics trafficking," Downing said.
A debate is currently raging in Israel over whether to decentralize the Israel Police and create city police departments accountable to city mayors, or create municipal police forces that would remain accountable to the national police headquarters. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch favors the latter reform.
In many respects, "all problems are local," Downing said. "No one understands the local scene better than cops. If you break things down to smaller geographical area, the police become the people and the people become the police."
In LA, Downing said, police have been able to bring homicide rates down to their lowest levels since 1957, despite the presence of 60,000 gang members belonging to 400 separate gangs.
Currently, the LAPD has been focused on integrating analytical insights into crime fighting, as part of efforts to prevent crimes before they take place, Downing said.
"We're now pushing into the predictive era - using all of the database and analytics to predict things and prevent them, and to identify crime hot spots," he added.
LAPD data shows that 10 percent of the victims are victimized 40 percent of the time, 10 percent of the suspects commit 50 percent of the crime and 10 percent of the locations are responsible for 60 percent of the crime.
The challenge now lays in using such data to become "more surgical and more analytical," Downing said.
Law enforcement in Los Angeles has come a long way, he added, passing through a number of phases. During the reform era, the force was faced with large-scale corruption that had to be eliminated. The LAPD then moved into the professional era, when it functioned on a "quasi-military" basis and responded to events on the ground.
"Then we moved into the community policing era - building relationships in the community, and putting prevention into place."
The LAPD looked to the Israel Police as a guide in dealing with the threat of terrorism, Downing said, and enjoyed close cooperation with the Israel Police's bomb squad. Los Angeles police officials were influenced by a decision in 2004 by the Israel Police to place counter-terrorism as a fourth priority, behind organized crime, traffic safety and community policing, he added.
"It rang true to us to say, 'Let's not take our eyes off the ball, but let's not make terrorism the main thing.' When we speak to public groups, we always use the Israel Police as an example," he said.
"Our biggest enemy is complacency," Downing added, noting that the Israeli general public tends to be vigilant due to national military conscription and Israel's complex security reality.
"In the US, we [i.e. Los Angeles] are al-Qaeda's second-largest target, after New York. Al-Qaeda is certainly an outside threat... and a franchised ideology," Downing noted.
On the one hand, the LAPD was always on the lookout for individuals and cells that "are inspired and focused on attacking us," while on the other hand, an outreach initiative was underway with LA's Muslim community, aimed at "building trusting relationships, providing government services and ensuring that they are not isolated and balkanized."
The Safe City conference was organized by Globus Gate Group and MK International Security Consulting Ltd., and held within the framework of the 7th Israel Gateway Conference, an international trade forum.