[News] Does LAPD’s reporting on our ‘suspicious behavior’ protect us from terrorism?

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 8 11:18:22 EDT 2013

  Does LAPD’s reporting on our ‘suspicious behavior’ protect us from

April 1, 2013
By Dan Bluemel <http://www.laactivist.com/author/danbluemel/>

Nearly every day Los Angles police file reports on someone for their 
simply being suspicious. Suspicious of what, however, is unclear.

It is part of the Los Angeles Police Department’s suspicious activity 
reporting program, which is touted as a first line of defense against 
possible terrorist attacks. Though law enforcement praises the reporting 
system, significant questions are being raised as to the program’s 
effectiveness and transparency.

*LA’s war on terrorism*

Since March 2008, when the reporting program began, to July 2012, over 
4,000 suspicious activity reports, or SARs, have been filed on 
Angelenos. Public records requests filed by the Stop LAPD Spying 
Coalition <http://stoplapdspying.org/> have revealed that of the 3,001 
SARs sent to a fusion center, a local information-sharing hub in Norwalk 
where the reports would be entered into national databases, 80 percent 
were found to be useless.

As of yet, no documents or statements made by police officials have 
revealed that any SAR has thwarted a terrorist plot or led to an arrest, 
raising the question if the program has any value in keeping Los Angeles 
safe from terrorism. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition wants the SARs 
program rescinded.

“In essence, the LAPD has nothing to show for this,” said Hamid Khan, an 
organizer for the Coalition. “It looks like a major waste of resources.”

For a person in Los Angeles to have a SAR written on them, they must 
engage in behavior that police may consider related to terrorism. This 
was defined for officers in Special Order 1 
<http://stoplapdspying.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/SO-1.pdf>, a 
department directive outlining the program. Some of these acts are 
obvious, such as possessing “unusual amounts of weapons [or] 
explosives.” However, a crime is not a prerequisite for a SAR. Taking 
photographs of buildings or infrastructure, questioning people about a 
building’s hours of operation or demonstrating an “unusual” interest in 
a building are all activities that may get one entered into national 
terrorism databases.

Though SARs may or may not have a person’s name attached to them, it is 
the fact that non-criminal behavior is being reported on as though it 
were a criminal act which most disturbs critics.

“There is a potential for false positives — people being falsely 
identified and placed into databases for activity that is completely 
innocent,” said Khan.

Deputy Chief Michael Downing, the head of the LAPD’s counterterrorism 
bureau, has been a vocal supporter of the SARs program. The LAPD did not 
respond to LA Activist’s request for an interview, but Downing’s public 
statements can provide some measure of his opinions about the program.

In a 2009 article in Police Chief Magazine 
Downing wrote about the important role local law enforcement agencies 
can play in fighting terrorism. He argued that the SARs program could be 
integral in unraveling any local links to international terrorist events.

“This program has the potential to become the bread and butter of U.S. 
fusion centers, and it can inspire the so-called boots on the ground and 
the community to get involved in the counterterrorism effort,” he wrote.

In 2008, the LAPD was widely commended in law enforcement circles for 
being instrumental in helping the Department of Homeland Security take 
the SARs program to a national level. But after a few years into the 
program, according to a Senate investigation, the national SARs program 
never became “the bread and butter of U.S. fusion centers” that Downing 
had hoped for.

In October 2012, the Senate Subcommittee on Homeland Security and 
Governmental Affairs published a report 
that described DHS and its 77 fusion centers as an albatross around the 
neck of national security. The two-year investigation revealed an agency 
bereft with poor training, constitutional and privacy violations, 
grossly inadequate accounting and ineffective — and even 
counterproductive — intelligence gathering.

“It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to 
share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem,” 
said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a ranking member of the Subcommittee, in a 
“Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too 
often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.”

Downing on some level was aware of the incompetence within DHS and its 
fusion centers. In his position as a senior fellow at George Washington 
University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, he co-authored a June 
2012 report 
that found fusion centers failing to live up to their stated goal of 
fighting terrorism.

“The fusion centers are acting as hubs of information — but are they 
acting as hubs for intelligence? At this point, the answer is: not 
quite, not yet,” stated the report.

Yet four months later, after the Senate’s report was released, Downing, 
along with DHS, laagered wagons in defense of fusion centers and its 
vast amount of useless reporting.

“There’s a lot of white noise, but there are occasionally gold nuggets,” 
he said to the Los Angeles Times 
though admitting in the same interview there have been no convictions 
from such information.

Since 2003, when the LAPD’s counterterrorism bureau was created, they 
have “gained considerable … case experience” in fighting terrorism, 
according to Downing in Police Chief Magazine. For instance, in 2005, 
the department helped bring down a group called Jam’yyat Al-Islam 
Al-Saheeh. Formed in prison by a former Hoover Street Crip gang member, 
the four-man group plotted to attack Army National Guard installations, 
Israeli offices and synagogues. The group was apprehended and 
successfully prosecuted.

Downing also mentions how, in late 2008, the LAPD, along with the FBI 
and DEA, helped expose an alleged source of funding for Hezbollah from 
laundered drug money. However, according to The New York Times 
because the CIA suddenly wanted in on the case, it forced an important 
meeting between an informant and Hezbollah contacts to be postponed. The 
contacts were spooked and as a result were never identified and the 
scheme was never revealed.

But the other cases that Downing highlights in his article seem 
questionable, either for their lack of terrorist merit or for a lack of 
results. He mentions an alleged plot in 2007 organized by the Black 
Riders Liberation Party, a sort-of next generation Black Panther Party 
which the department considers a domestic terrorist group. The Black 
Riders’ plan was to “take over four police stations in Los Angeles and 
shoot and kill as many police officers as possible,” wrote Downing.

But the LAPD’s case against the Black Riders went nowhere. According to 
Los Angeles Indymedia <http://la.indymedia.org/news/2007/12/211975.php>, 
four members were arrested on conspiracy to possess automatic weapons. 
However, the groups leader, General T.A.C.O., a moniker which stands for 
“Taking All Capitalists Out,” accepted a plea bargain so the other three 
Black Riders would be released, LA Indymedia also reported 
<http://la.indymedia.org/news/2010/07/240669.php>. Terrorism had been 
alleged, but it was never the woof and warp of the case.

The Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, is a group that also operates in 
LA, which Downing refers to as an “extremist organization.” For several 
years, ALF members targeted UCLA vivisectors. Some of the ALF’s actions 
included death threats, firebombing UCLA transport vans, setting ablaze 
one researcher’s car and turning on a garden hose inside a researcher’s 
home, which caused thousands of dollars in water damage.

Downing also lists the ALF as being a group that has given the LAPD 
counterterrorism experience. However, the department never made an 
arrest or a conviction of an ALF member for a terrorist-related crime, 
said Dr. Jerry Vlasak of the Animal Liberation Press Office 
<https://animalliberationpressoffice.org/NAALPO/>, a group that speaks 
to the media on behalf of the ALF. He called Downing’s statements 
concerning the ALF to be “pure self-promotion.”

“To be quite honest, [the police] don’t know how to find the people who 
are doing the real underground actions,” he said. “They have been 
spectacularly unsuccessful.”

When Downing spoke of these cases, the SARs program was only 11 months 
old. The cases that did involve convictions or at least arrests were 
accomplished with old-fashioned police work and a little bit of luck.

*Trust and transparency in a post-9/11 world*

On Mar. 12, the police commission’s Office of the Inspector General, or 
OIG, released the results of its first audit of the SARs program 
<http://www.lapdpolicecom.lacity.org/031913/BPC_13-0097.pdf> in five 
years. The OIG examined a four-month period — Feb. 1 to May 31 of 2012 — 
to test the department’s compliance with Special Order 1. The report did 
not address any of the Coalition’s points of interest and found the 
department to be in compliance with the police directive.

On the same day, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition presented an audit of 
its own. It was called a “people’s audit 
and its findings were much different.

Khan said he and the Coalition expected the OIG’s audit to “be very 
superficial” and accused the OIG of “cherry-picking” the data it inspected.

“It was not an audit; it was a memo,” he said at a Coalition gathering 
held on the night of the police commission meeting. “It was a nine-page 
document of a policy that has been in effect for five years. There was 
no audit of any civil rights or privacy violations; there was no audit 
on the budget or expenses.”

However, the OIG’s audit was revelatory in one respect.

In May 2012, the department said it would no longer keep unfounded SARs 
in their databases for more than a year 
Both hard and electronic copies were to be deleted once the reports were 
deemed to have no value. The OIG audit, however, revealed that despite 
these reports being deleted from the LAPD’s SARs database, the reports 
were “still retained in the Department’s [Division of Records].” On top 
of that, police want to go further and keep all reports “regardless 
whether the SAR met Department criteria” for 10 years.

“Not only do they not purge [the SARs, they are] maintained in three 
databases forever,” said Khan.

“In essence, what is happening is, and what we have been saying all 
along, that it is all about data collection, data mining and retaining 
people’s personal information,” he added. “Anyone of us can now expect 
to have our personal record — for engaging in completely innocent 
activity — to have that information with the LAPD for 10 years in three 
different databases.”

The protection of constitutional rights has been central to the 
Coalition’s argument against the SARs program. However, even before the 
Coalition’s birth in the summer of 2011, the rights of Americans was a 
concern for law enforcement. In June 2008, the DHS, the Justice Dept. 
and the Major Cities Chiefs Association addressed these issues in their 
recommendations for the national implementation of the SARs program.

“A strong privacy and civil liberties policy will not only protect the 
rights of citizens, but also protect the agency,” states the report.

In the end, DHS failed to uphold those protections, and, according to 
the Coalition, nor has the LAPD.

The department’s Special Order 1 expresses some precaution, but its 
language has the Coalition concerned. Special Order 1 does state that 
constitutionally protected acts should not be in a SAR, unless, however, 
those acts “support the source’s suspicion that the behavior observed is 
not innocent, but rather reasonably indicative of suspicious activity 
associated with terrorism.”

Jim Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild said the nebulous language in 
Special Order 1 goes against established legal standards.

“Many of us in the legal community pointed out that the idea of a 
‘reasonable indication’ is completely unprecedented,” he said. “It is an 
intentionally watered-down version of ‘reasonable suspicion,’ which is a 
U.S. legal standard that officers must meet when they stop and frisk 
people or detain and question them.

“It leaves the cop on the beat pretty free to call anything he doesn’t 
like the looks of, or smells funny to him, as reason enough open a SARs 
file,” he added. “Why would you want this to be such a watered-down 
version of Fourth Amendment protections? Why would you want to do that? 
Unless you want to, in a sense, give almost unfettered discretion to a 
police officer on the street.”

The Coalition would like to build up a case showing how that “unfettered 
discretion” has violated people’s rights. The difficulty, however, in 
accomplishing that has to do with the secretive nature of the SARs 
program. For one, they are not mentioned or referenced on arrest 
reports, but are done secretly. Also, a suspicious activity report is 
not like an FBI file, which a citizen can gain access to with a public 
records request. For someone to find out if a SAR has been written on 
them, they must obtain a court order.

“A normal California Public Records Act request would not release that 
information,” said Lafferty. “They would consider that privileged 
information as part of an ‘ongoing investigation.’”

The fact that the LAPD has been dragging its heels in complying with the 
Coalition’s public records requests compounds the air of secrecy 
surrounding its SARs program. The Coalition first requested SARs-related 
documents from the department in April 2012. Some documents have come 
forward, but, a year later, the Coalition is still waiting for more. The 
National Lawyers Guild has since threatened to sue the department for 
the documents.

When the Coalition’s concerns are added up — the concern over privacy, 
the rights of citizens and institutional transparency — it is the future 
the Coalition is worried about. They fear suspicion becoming ingrained 
in the culture.

Under the SARs umbrella is a civilian method of reporting on suspicious 
behavior. It is called iWatch, and like the department’s SARs program, 
there isn’t much to boast about. Public records requests have also 
revealed that, from October 2009 to March 2012, 70 percent of iWatch 
reports didn’t meet the basic standards of the department. The Coalition 
argues that iWatch has become a means for people to snitch on each other 
for no reason.

Khan says the SARs program is a flawed effort on the part of law 
enforcement to engage in preemptive policing, or what proponents call 
“intelligence-led” policing. A March 2010 report 
published by Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank, 
argued that this method of policing could cause officers to gradually be 
seen, not as those who protect and serve, but as intelligence agents 
“prone to politicization and bias.”

Still, the LAPD has to deal with potential threats to public safety. Los 
Angeles may not be a hive of terrorist activity, but if we take 
Downing’s word for it, the department has been tracking among others 
“government of Iran operatives, Hezbollah, sovereign citizen, homegrown 
violent extremists [and] animal rights groups.”

“In this region we have active terrorist plots, in this region, right 
now,” he said to CBS Los Angeles in August 2012 

Khan agrees that law enforcement needs the tools necessary to protect 
Americans from attack, but he does not think the SARs program is any 
such tool. With suspicious activity reports, he sees a high potential 
for racial profiling, as well as an excuse for law enforcement to 
criminalize dissenters, who often have extreme views concerning politics 
and society, but who never step outside the law except for the 
occasional non-violent act of civil disobedience.

“I think we would all advocate for the safety of the public and yet, at 
the same time, at what cost?” said Khan. “On many different levels it is 
absolutely a dangerous policy.”

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