Despite victories, battle against LAPD ‘spying’ continues
Although the Los Angeles Police Department announced it would modify the way it stores its reports on suspicious activity that it deems related to terrorism, a coalition of community groups is skeptical of the reforms and is calling for the program to be ended.
Due to concerns over privacy, the department said last month it will no longer keep suspicious activity reports, or SARs, in a database for a year. Instead, the reports will be erased from counterterrorism databases.
The change in policy was widely touted as a triumph for community and civil liberties groups.
However, a group called Stop LAPD Spying Coalition disagrees.
“To claim victory based upon partial information and before a real change occurs is not only naïve but dangerous: it creates an illusion of safety which renders Angelenos vulnerable and suspect under this program,” said the Coalition in a news release.
The changes were made primarily between the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and police.
“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, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Hamid Khan, a coordinator for Stop LAPD Spying, said his coalition was left out of the discussion. Organizers asked groups, to no avail, not meet with police until they had created a larger community effort.
Khan said the split allowed the LAPD to use the division within the campaign to their advantage.
“[The police] created these communities as gate keepers, and then they claimed, ‘We have spoken with the community,’” he said in an interview with LA Activist.
As far as Khan’s criticism of the department’s reforms, he is not alone. According to the website Security Management, LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing said, “There is no real substantive change” with the recent reforms.
Also, the Huffington Post reported Cmdr. Blake Chow of the LAPD’s counterterrorism bureau as saying the SARs program is “still robust as it is now.”
Suspicious activity reporting is part of Special Order 1, a police directive that gives the department the task of reporting on peoples’ behavior, whether criminal or non-criminal. The information is then shared and, if seen as valid, goes into national counter-terrorism databases.
Seeing as police are reporting on non-criminal behavior, in ways such as photographing a building, and people reported on do not know they are under investigation, many are nervous over the trajectory of law enforcement.
According to Special Order 1, any filing numbers related to the SAR are purposely kept from crime and arrest reports. The only way a person can find out if they have been reported on is to obtain a court order.
The efficacy of Special Order 1 in combating terrorism is uncertain. However, according to an LAPD statistical analysis that was handed out at an April 26 SAR symposium, there is no mention of actual terrorist attempts thwarted from suspicious activity reporting.
Khan said Special Order 1 amounts to “a lot of wasted activity” on the part of the department.
“It is a waste of resources, particularly now when police take out so much budgeting dollars out of the city, that we are cutting back on critical services, education and various other things,” he said.
In 2011, 557 SARs had been filed. Of the reports, only 15 included information about a person’s race and gender. Whites and, in particular, white males had the highest incidence of being reported on, though the margin was small.
The fact the LAPD has not focused on any race in its SARs reflects the department’s efforts over the years to not stereotype Middle Easterners. Coverage of this in the news media, said Khan, has obscured the fact that this only means the LAPD views all people equally suspicious.
“It buys into that terrorist stereotyping of Muslims, that it is only about one community,” he said. “We are saying, “No, the whole rhetoric of national security and the stereotyping is a front to go after all communities, how to get rid of and gather information on people.’”
On April 9, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, in concert with the National Lawyers Guild, filed a public records request regarding Special Order 1 to fully understand the magnitude of the program. In the meantime, the Coalition continues to do community outreach, as well as email, phone and Internet campaigns to bring an end to suspicious activity reporting.