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Anyone shooting a video, using binoculars, taking notes, drawing diagrams, taking a picture and even looking up at a building, can be considered a potential terrorist and placed on a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR). Draconian, implausible, unbelievable, yes, but part of LAPD’s anti-terrorist surveillance program since 2008.
How did this happen? The background and current operation of SARs is contained in A People’s Audit of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Order 1, recently released by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. Parts of the audit are presented here to increase public awareness and protest of what often amounts to criminalization of ordinary behavior. LAPD’s SO 1 and iWATCH program also break down trust, provoke violence and plant informants through a practice of anonymous tips.
Since June, 2011, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has worked to expose and rescind SO 1 and other LAPD policies that infringe on human and civil rights and violate privacy. Despite the Coalition’s many requests for public records and demands for other information in numerous public meetings, the specific practices, especially the impact and implications for those targeted, remain mostly secret.
On March 15, 2013 LAPD’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued its audit of SO-1 which has been in effect for five years. The audit claims to address the concerns of community members, but does so selectively; the questions are about local procedure rather than the broader consequences of SO 1 such as the frightening policing philosophy behind the policy (pre-emptive policing, i.e., elimination of traditional standards of proof required before law enforcement is legally allowed to act.)
In January 2008, the government launched the Nationwide Suspicious Activities Reporting Initiative (SAR), which established preliminary guidelines on how “terrorism information” would be collected and shared. In March 2008, former LAPD Chief William Bratton issued SO 11, outlining the protocol for filing a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR). It also listed the types of activities/behaviors LAPD regarded as potentially terrorism-related.
The stated idea prompting these changes in intelligence-gathering was that seamless sharing of terrorist-related information would help investigators “connect the dots” and prevent another 9/11. Toward that end, reports of suspicious activities (SARS) are gathered by various agencies around the country and submitted to a “Fusion Center.” Fusion Centers are basically hubs which tie local collectors and users of intelligence data to a national information-sharing network. SO-11 and SO-1 train and authorize LAPD officers to gather street-level intelligence and information whenever they assume even potentially innocent behaviors are associated with terrorism. This infringes on privacy and civil liberties, promotes racial profiling and legitimizes spying by local law enforcement that criminalizes innocent behavior.
Both SO 11 and SO 1 include all of the typically innocent activities mentioned above. The “suspicion” cast on benign daily behaviors and the completely speculative and arbitrary nature of the “reasonable indication” standard is exactly what opens the door for racial profiling and normal activities to be used as a pretext to open investigations and spy on people just living their lives and abiding by the law. It is important to realize that SO1’s fundamental premise that each and every person is a potential suspect, completely contradicts the principle of innocent until proven guilty—in these police encounters, people are guilty until proven innocent.
In October 2009, LAPD launched the iWATCH program promoting community and neighborhood involvement in reporting “suspicious activity” to LAPD. As Political Research Associates noted in their study of SAR, the implication is that iWATCH “encourages the public to file a report even if people are not convinced witnessed behavior is criminal.” The iWATCH tagline, “See Something, Say Something,” in effect, recruits community informants to report perfectly legal activities.
In classic LAPD misrepresentation, the department claims they have not received a single civil rights complaint. But how can LAPD receive complaints when people don’t even know that a SAR has been filed on them?
A 2010 study by Political Research Associates, Platform for Prejudice, thoroughly examined the national SAR initiative and LAPD’s SAR policies, in particular: “The SAR initiative reflects the new philosophy called Intelligence- Led Policing. The term itself is misleading. Pre-emptive Policing, the more accurate term, emphasizes surveillance and seizures of individuals before a criminal ”predicate” exists, raising critical questions about its compatibility with American constitutional principles such as the presumption of innocence.
A study authored by the National Research Council et al, “Protecting Individual Privacy in a Struggle Against Terrorists” concluded although research and development on certain aspects of the topic are warranted, no scientific consensus exists on whether these techniques are ready for operational use at all in counterterrorism. On October 3, 2012, the U.S. Senate Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a highly critical report on Fusion Centers. It found almost $1.4 billion had been spent by the government on Centers that were seriously flawed, lacked adequate financial oversight and failed to hold officials accountable who reportedly violated guidelines.
In April 2012, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and the National Lawyers Guild filed a request for records related to SO1 pursuant to the California Public Records Act (CPRA). The documents eventually obtained, revealed 4,325 SARs were filed from March 2008 to July 2012. During that time, LAPD sent 3,001 SARs to the Fusion Center. Of these, 2,368 (80%) were considered unfounded, yet LAPD and the Fusion Center can keep this information for one to five years. From October 2009 until March 2012, LAPD received 153 iWATCH reports; of these, 108 (70%) did not even meet basic standards. Information discovered through CPRA, although minimal, revealed 71% of SARs were filed on non-whites.
I urge more folks to demand answers from LAPD on the critical questions and community concerns raised in the People’s Audit.
For more information call Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, 562-230-4578
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail