LAPD continues controversial anti-terrorism spying program with little oversight
The Los Angeles Police Commission recently approved weighty new revisions to the LAPD’s controversial Special Order 1 policy and the agency’s intelligence guidelines amid strong public opposition, enabling police officers to continue to gather, record and share intelligence and information based solely on observed behavior.
The LAPD currently implements Special Order 1, a precept central to the agency’s counter terrorism efforts. SO1 enables police officers to single out behavior or activity they deem to be “suspicious”, and then file a report on the citizen or make a stop. An older version of SO1 laid the groundwork for the federal “Suspicious Activity Reporting” (SAR) program, and the LAPD were trailblazers in 2007 in launching the standardized program that allows untrained citizens and uniforms alike to identify what they deem as a “threat” under the banner of combating terrorism at every level.
“What we need to do is solicit and build our human ring of steel,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing at a meeting last week. “We are asking our communities to get involved.”
SAR guidelines detail that innocuous activities like taking pictures or using binoculars can be seen as potentially criminal behavior. Accordingly, the order has been under considerable fire by civil rights organizations and community activists for the space it affords police officers to misuse the authority by relying on their own instincts or their subjective bias.
Seemingly in response to concerns raised by community members, the order underwent a series of slight revisions last Tuesday. These included conducting regular audits of the program and new terminology that bans racial and religious profiling, but gives no amended strategy or new training procedure to ensure that such discrimination is institutionally avoided. Despite the policy’s altered language, the same civil liberties concerns persist.
In addition, the LAPD also proposed a complex expansion to the unit’s intelligence guidelines that gives police officers unprecedented access into the private lives of citizens who not only reside in Los Angeles, but outside the LAPD’s jurisdiction as well. The chilling implications of these broadening guidelines are strikingly similar to the NYPD’s strategy of surveillance of the Muslim community in the past decade.
New amendments to the LAPD’s approach include using informants and in person surveillance in response to unverified “tips,” increasingly invasive cyber surveillance tactics, allowance of the infiltration of non-target organizations and a reduction of oversight of undercover investigations. The secret NYPD document entitled “Strategic Posture 2006” divulged that the intelligence division had been spying on Muslim institutions, mosques, businesses, groups, schools and individuals all over New York and even across state lines.
In the document (PDF), Islamic organizations and institutions were categorically organized according to their level of infiltration — whether they were being targeted through an “undercover” agent, an “informant” or by “cyber” surveillance. Not only does the jargon of LAPD strategy echo the language of Strategic Posture 2006, it fortifies LAPD officers with the same muscle.
When the secret NYPD policy leaked, civil rights organizations and Muslim groups responded in an uproar, raising questions about the efficacy and validity of a program that pursues innocent civilians practicing their constitutionally protected freedoms. The NYPD’s controversial program was shrouded in secrecy for years, but sent shockwaves throughout the nation when it was uncovered by the Associated Press last year. The LAPD’s analogous directive is currently being written into law in broad daylight. The complex policy however, is being stalled in a tedious bureaucratic process, preventing it from manufacturing even a fraction of the fervor.
Since contentious policies and programs are subject to public comment, NYPD officials insisted that there was adequate oversight of the department and its programs. As the policy unraveled however, many groups questioned the legitimacy of such ostensible oversight.
“If it’s one thing we have learned the hard way in Los Angeles, it’s that when oversight mechanisms are taken away, there is more likelihood of abuse,” Anne Richardson, a civil rights attorney, told Raw Story. “Think of Rampart, the Red Squads, the Public Disorder Intelligence Division of years past.”
In last week’s LAPD meeting, community activists voiced their concerns over the burgeoning system for gathering anti-terrorism intelligence, a means by which the LAPD claims to maintain transparency and oversight. The public discourse however, was hardly acknowledged in the Board of Commissioners review of the guidelines.
Gratuitous surveillance and infringement of civil liberties and privacy have not been the only fears expressed by dissenters of the policy. As is the case with Special Order 1, the LAPD’s emergent system for gathering anti terrorism intelligence is duplicating many tactics already employed by the FBI. Amid a budget crisis, many questions over whether resources are being funneled into an effective and indispensable program are being raised.
“These programs that have no place in our society are wasting important resources,” Jim Lafferty, the Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, told Raw Story. “There is certainly symbiosis between the LAPD and the FBI.”
Indeed, “Strategic Posture 2006” proved that insidious surveillance might not be the most sound strategy — the program failed to produce any terrorism related leads in over six years. While the LAPD’s anti terrorism plan is taking the shape of the NYPD’s intelligence shadow, law enforcement officials have faith that they won’t fall victim to the same gaffe.
“We want to do this better than anyone else,” said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck at the Aug. 28 meeting. “The entire country struggles with SAR and what it entails. . . This is a very delicate path that we tread on.”
Yet many still remain skeptical of the LAPD and its methods. “A lot of the changes to law enforcement intelligence gathering in the US have one key component – the removal of a requirement of a factual basis for believing that somebody is doing something wrong,” said Michael German a former FBI agent and current Policy Counsel on National Security, Immigration and Privacy at ACLU National. “Whether it’s the PATRIOT Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the SAR Program, or this suspicion-less monitoring of entire communities, none of it is based on actual evidence, or even suspicion, of wrong doing. This leads to inappropriate, biased targeting.”