The Los Angeles Police Department has agreed to amend its suspicious activity reporting program after civil liberties and community groups raised civil concerns.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has agreed that it will no longer generate and store suspicious activity reports (SARs) unless the officer’s report articulates a reasonable suspicion that the activity was connected to criminal or terrorist activity. The concession was a major victory for civil liberties and community groups, who have long voiced concern that the program violated the city’s residents’ civil liberties and privacy.
During a meeting with civil liberties and community groups — including the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commanding officer of the LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, presented an amended version of “Special Order No. 1."
In the original order , issued in early January of this year, a SAR was defined as a “stand-alone report used to document any reported or observed behavior/activity that may reveal a nexus to foreign or domestic terrorism.” The definition has been revised to say that a SAR is “an official documentation of observed or reported behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity.”
Of particular concern to the community groups was the creation of SARs relating to constitutionally protected activities, including photography and speech that have no nexus to terrorism. The revision restricts officers from filing SARs for First Amendment-protected activities -- such as photography, asking security-related questions, and observing critical infrastructure -- unless they can articulate why the behavior is not innocent and “reasonably indicative” of terrorist-related activity.
“The agreed upon reforms by LAPD are a victory for partnerships between communities and law enforcement nationwide,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, in a statement. "LAPD, in contrast to [the New York Police Department], is developing practices and policies after engaging communities."
Downing, however, downplayed the change in an e-mail to Security Management. "All we did was put the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] definition of SAR in the order and separated the 9 non-criminal behaviors from the 6 criminal behaviors and included an indented note about Terry vs Ohio ," said Downing. "There is no real substantive change."
Downing said it will take about 30 days to rework the Special Order before it goes into effect.
After their creation, SARs are stored in the LAPD’s databases and can be shared with other local, state, and federal law enforcement through the Department of Homeland Security’s 77 recognized fusion centers, which are connected to the federal government’s Information-Sharing Environment (ISE), a counterterrorism and national security intelligence database.
The LAPD began the SAR program in 2008 (Read about how the program was conceived by its main architect in the September 2011 issue of Security Management). The idea behind the program is that cops on the beat know how to distinguish what’s normal from what’s abnormal in their area, and thus are best positioned to disrupt a terrorist plot before it can go operational. By generating SARs and integrating them into a criminal intelligence database, the LAPD can connect the dots between seemingly unconnected events -- such as the theft of fertilizer and reports of suspicious men taking pictures of bridges and other critical infrastructure.
The program was adopted by the federal government with revisions, such as a stricter standard that any information retained had to have a reasonable nexus to terrorism. Today SARs from police departments nationwide are shared with state-based and regional fusion centers and can be sent to the ISE for storage and query by a wide range of communities involved in law enforcement, homeland security, and national security.
In March, the community groups sent a letter to the LAPD demanding that it halt its SAR program until it was reformed. The groups stated that the program should be altered to mandate that police officers should not file a SAR, and the department not retain it, unless the report contains “articulable facts which provide reasonable suspicion that the activity reported is evidence of criminal conduct.” Within the letter, the groups noted that noncriminal activities were a disproportionate amount of the 2,734 SARs collected when the LAPD released data on the program in 2010. When the LAPD tried to share 2,668 of them with its local fusion center, only two percent were accepted.
The groups worried that people entered into the database for completely innocent activities could have their lives altered because of the program’s wide reach. “A SAR filed regarding an individual who engaged in photography could, under LAPD’s policy, be shared via the federal government with law enforcement agencies across the country, and might potentially affect the subject’s ability to travel freely or obtain government jobs,” the letter warned.
MPAC also praised Los Angeles law enforcement for being receptive to the organization’s concerns about intelligence and surveillance activities within Muslim-American communities.
“The police and sheriffs departments in the Los Angeles area have been trend-setters in the nation for community-oriented policing partnerships with American Muslim communities,” said Alejandro Beutel, MPAC’s policy and legislative analyst. “LA's approach stands as an effective alternative to the New York Police Department whose behavior treats our communities as suspects rather than partners.”
Over the last year, the NYPD has come under fire for engaging in controversial, and potentially unconstitutional, surveillance activities, including spying on Muslim-American and Middle Eastern neighborhoods, as well as infiltrating Muslim student groups , not just in the city, but on college campuses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the Associated Press revealed in a major investigative series .
Beyond reforming when police officers can write up a SAR, MPAC reports Downing agreed to adjust SAR processes to ferret out racial and ethnic profiling as well as said the LAPD was open to the establishment of a community advisory board for the program.
* Updated with comments from Deputy Chief Downing at 2:55 p.m
♦ Photo by EsotericSapience/Flickr