Los Angeles, CA. – Over the objections of some civil liberties groups, the Los Angeles Police Commission approved controversial new guidelines for when LAPD officers can document suspicious behavior (“Suspicious Activity Report”) they believe could be linked to terrorism.
The five-member civilian oversight panel unanimously approved a special order that gives officers the authority to write reports on people whose actions might not break any laws, such as taking a photograph of a power plant.
In Los Angeles, as elsewhere in this country, fear of enemies in our midst — be they Communists, trade unionists or foreign terrorists — too often has led to violations of the privacy of law-abiding Americans. Given that history, civil libertarians and members of the Muslim community were right to press the Los Angeles Police Department to ensure that a program designed to detect possible terrorist activity doesn’t cast suspicion on individuals whose only “offense” is to exercise their right to free speech or belong to a particular ethnic or religious group.
The result is an amended set of guidelines approved by the city Police Commission for the handling of “Suspicious Activity Reports.” Though the new guidelines don’t go as far as the American Civil Liberties Union would like, they make it less likely that police will record the identities of persons whose conduct is neither criminal nor reasonably suggestive of possible terrorist connections. That’s an important step forward.
So-called SARs are controversial because they are not limited to criminal activity; they can also be filed if a person behaves in a manner that, while legal, may be suspicious — such as abandoning luggage in a railway station or taking photographs of a power plant. Especially since 9/11, citizens often alert police to such activities. (They also may pass on “information” rooted in paranoia or prejudice, such as the fact that a new neighbor wears a turban or speaks Arabic. Police insist they will promptly discard such reports as “unfounded.”)
The LAPD revised its policy in response to criticism so that officers are now specifically forbidden to engage in racial and other profiling and the department is required to conduct regular audits of the program. In addition, the LAPD agreed to establish an advisory board and to regularly purge its records of unfounded suspicions.
In urging the commission to approve the new policy, department officials said it would help protect the public from what they said was the very real threat of terrorism.
“We have active terrorist plots in this region right now,” Deputy Chief Michael Downing, head of the LAPD’s counter-terrorism bureau, told commissioners. In an interview with The Times, Downing said that such terrorism activity amounts to helping with financing and organization of terrorism and not a specific plan to carry out an attack in the region.
Downing assured the commission that no one would be targeted because of race, creed or religion. “It has nothing to do with profiling people, it is about behavior,” he said. He also said that officers completed 547 suspicious activity reports last year but that the number including people’s names amounted to little more than a dozen.
Some civil libertarians faulted the commission for not making more significant reforms and cited the department’s history of violating public privacy, including its 1950s Red Squad that hunted communists and its activities spying on critics in the 1980s.
“We ought to be ashamed of ourselves,” said attorney Jim Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild. He said the program, which also encourages residents to contact police about suspicions, would encourage neighbors to spy on neighbors.
Los Angeles police created the so-called Suspicious Activity Report program in March 2008, asking officers to complete reports whenever they observed or received accounts of someone engaged in one of many activities that experts have identified as possible precursors to a terrorist act.
Many of the actions on the list were illegal and raised obvious red flags, such as attempting to acquire illegal explosives or biological agents. But the program immediately ignited controversy over the way it allowed officers to also document noncriminal activity.
The new policy advises officers against reporting activity generally protected by the 1st Amendment “unless additional facts and circumstances can be clearly articulated that support an officer’s or agency’s determination that the behavior observed is reasonably indicative of criminal activity associated with terrorism or other criminal activity.”
Peter Bibring, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, accused the department of breaking a promise to make an additional change that would have gone further by requiring that officers have a “reasonable suspicion” of an illegal act before they documented the activity.
“It does not reflect our most fundamental concern,” Bibring said. “It targets lawful activity.”
Downing said the department never made such a promise, adding that the new policy meets the standards adopted by the federal government on reporting suspicious activity.
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iWATCH, iREPORT, i KEEP US SAFE (iWATCH) is a community awareness program created to educate the public about behaviors and activities that may have a connection to terrorism.
This program is a community program to help your neighborhood stay safe from terrorist activities. It is a partnership between your community and the Los Angeles Police Department. We can and must work together to prevent terrorist attacks.
To learn about the iWATCH program and about the behaviors and activities that you should report, view the videos and review the list of examples. You can also read and download a brochure that explains the program. http://www.lapdonline.org/iwatchla
What suspicious behaviors and activites should you report?
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