Turning the Police Into Intelligence Agents

Increasingly, local police forces are engaging in intelligence activity. And this new and troubling role may greatly expand very soon, according to a new report by Political Research Associates entitled Platform for Prejudice.

In twelve cities, police have participated in something called the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security. Los Angeles was the first to get going, starting in March 2008. The LAPD instructed its officers to compile information “of a criminal and non-criminal nature,” and then feed that information upstream to a fusion center.

These fusion centers, now numbering 72 around the country, consist of law enforcement personnel up and down the line, from campus police up to the National Guard and beyond.

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Now the Department of Homeland Security wants to take the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative nationwide.

This initiative aims to “mobilize 800,000 American police officers as intelligence gatherers,” writes Thomas Cincotta, the author of Platform for Prejudice.

That would be a troubling and dangerous development, he writes, noting that many of these officers are not trained in intelligence gathering.

The program “invites racial, ethnic, and religious profiling,” he writes. “The SAR Initiative’s new information sharing systems allow racialized fears about terrorism to be magnified. Its broad definition of ‘suspicious activity’ and emphasis on so-called ‘pre-crime’ (i.e., innocent) activity creates confusion among police, encourages subjective judgments, and opens the door for habitual, often unconscious stereotypes to enter police decision-making.”

The report cites several incidents of Muslims and Arabs being monitored for no good reason. For instance, in March 2008, the Department of Homeland Security produced a “terrorism watchlist” about a Muslim conference in Georgia, even though there was no evidence that the speakers would be promoting radical extremism or violence, he notes.

The Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative also “gives license to target legal dissident activity,” he writes. “The SAR process provides and opening for local intelligence units to shift from legitimate counter-terrorism investigation (and following leads gained from tested information sources) to broad surveillance and open-ended political fishing expeditions. Intelligence sharing between local police, sheriff’s departments, the federal government, and the private sector is now being codified, mandated, and encouraged, making it far more likely for innocent people to be swept up in the anti-terror dragnet.”

Plus, once the information goes up the chain, there is no standardized safeguard for the protection of the information gathered, and no requirement to obtain judicial approval, he writes.

The potential for political discrimination is great. For instance, the report notes that “the Virginia Fusion Center’s 2009 Threat Assessment identified ‘subversive thought’ as a marker for violent terrorism and claimed thatuniversity-based student groups were a ‘radicalization node for almost every type of extremist group.’ ”

And harassment of innocent individuals engaged in innocuous behavior is likely to increase. “In January 2008, the Director of National Intelligence issued standards for state and local police to report suspicious activities to Fusion Centers that include taking pictures of infrastructure or looking at it through binoculars, the report notes. “Police have harassed many people for openly (and quite legally) photographing trains, buildings, and bridges,” it states.

Here are two examples from the report.

Duane Kerzic was arrested in 2008 for taking photos of New York’s Penn Station, which he was trying to submit to Amtrak’s Annual Photo Contest.

And “a 24-year-old Muslim-American journalism student at Syracuse University was taking photographs of flags in front of a New York City Veterans affairs building as part of a class assignment when she was detained by a VA police officer. After being taken to an office and questioned, her pictures were deleted from her camera and she was released.”

Not only are law enforcement involved in gathering and reporting suspicious activity. So are civilians and businesspeople. The LAPD has iWATCH, which encourages citizens to anonymously report nine types of suspicious behavior. And InfraGard, an alliance between the private sector and the FBI, has 36,312 members that can feed reports to fusion centers.

With the expansion of the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, our civil liberties may be further imperiled.

“It appears the new information exchange network built by the SAR Initiative will facilitate the unprecedented growth and unregulated pooling of locally produced intelligence data,” the report says. “Anyone concerned about government’s power to identify, monitor, and target individuals for adverse, discriminatory treatment will be troubled by its expanded capacity.”

Political Research Associates is calling for Congressional hearings before Homeland Security expands the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative.

Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.

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