How Secure is the Port of Los Angeles?

Photo courtesy of Port of Los Angeles

Security has been a prime focus for federal, state and local authorities in the 10 years since the September 11th attacks and nowhere has this been more evident than at the nation's ports. The Port of Los Angeles is no exception.

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Port authorities have spent more than $230 million in security upgrades over the last decade, according to port spokesman Phillip Sanfield. Half of this money came from federal funding, the other half from port revenues. These improvements include the installation of 400 cameras around the port, an increased port police force and radiation detectors, among others.

"Security has improved significantly in 10 years and there is much more of a focus than there used to be. It was relatively easy to move around the port in terms of access prior to 9/11, not the case today," Sanfield said.

There was tremendous concern about lax security at the nation's ports in the days after the attacks. According to Sanfield, the coast guard considered shutting down the Port of Los Angeles on September 11 but officials ultimately decided to keep the port open, instead choosing to closely monitor and board all vessels coming in that day, a policy that continued for six or seven months after the attacks. Today vessels are boarded at random.

Securing the port is a daunting task. The Port of Los Angeles is the largest port in North America, covering 7,500 acres of land and water. Securing cargo containers is only part of the job. Each year between 700,000 to 1,000,000 cruise ship passengers pass through the port. Sanfield calls the passengers the most precious cargo and says that security is always heightened when a cruise ship is docked.

Security specialist and former customs official Laura Hains says Americans should not be too worried about a terrorist attack originating from a cargo ship docked at a port. Instead, Hains believes cruise ships are the most susceptible.

"Container ships are much more secure and screened prior to leaving for the U.S., but cruise ships slide under radar. The number of people on cruises makes it almost prohibitive to search or get a handle on," explained Hains.

Even though Hains believes cargo entering U.S. ports is fairly secure, she thinks more can be done.

"I really believe in security devices inside containers and some companies are working with that. The costs are prohibitive, the margin for profit in maritime is very small and if you add an extra $600 per container the profit margin is gone. Until those prices come down I think we're doing what we can do," said Hains.

But Hains is quick to add that the Port of Los Angeles is probably the most secure port in the country. She calls the port's police force a national model and credits the port's new maritime training facility that opened in April for the high marks. The facility trains area law enforcement and ensures that all agencies (state, local, federal, etc.) are on the same page.

Security at the port is expected to be even tighter surrounding the 10th anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday, but Sanfield did not elaborate on what that might mean.

More: Judy Muller looks at Port of L.A. security in a recent SoCal Connected segment, Are We Safer Now?

Christine Detz is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.

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