Counterterrorism goes local

Feds look to local police department standards for suspicious activity reporting

On the look out

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has identified fusion centers as the point for suspicious activity reports to enter the federal information-sharing environment. Additional guidance is expected next month on how the centers should process suspicious activity reports.

Federal officials face several challenges in standardizing suspicious activity reporting including differences in the:

  • Analytic capabilities of local agencies.
  • Local and state laws involving how information is treated.
  • Threats faced by communities.
  • Methods that communities have developed to report suspicious activity since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

— Ben Bain

Federal authorities are examining the Los Angeles Police Department’s new procedures for police officers to report activities that could be linked to terrorism. Those procedures could become a model for federal law enforcement and intelligence officials as federal authorities consider ways to expand and standardize suspicious activity reporting nationwide.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence plans to create an information sharing environment in which local authorities track criminal and suspicious activities that could be part of a terrorism plot and share it with federal authorities through state and local fusion centers.

Fusion centers are relatively new facilities that share local and state information about crime and terrorism. In January, ODNI released data standards and guidance for how suspicious activity reports should be shared among local, state and federal law enforcement officials.

Joan McNamara, assistant commanding officer of LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, said the purpose of the suspicious activity reporting standards is to protect city residents and train local police officers to recognize behaviors that could indicate pre-operational terrorist activity.

“This builds a platform for prevention,” McNamara said.

However, some civil libertarians have raised concerns about fusion centers, saying police officers should not be required to monitor people who are not breaking the law.

The LAPD defines more than 40 behaviors as possible suspicious activity, including taking pictures that have no apparent aesthetic value in police officers’ judgment or espousing extremist views.

Michael German, a former FBI agent who now is policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the LAPD’s suspicious activity standards are ill-defined and invite profiling. He also said allowing police officers to collect and store personal information without the reasonable suspicion of a crime could run afoul of federal criminal data laws.

“You are basically unleashing a very problematic behavior in law enforcement on the community,” German said.

McNamara said the LAPD’s reporting process complies with federal and state privacy laws and added that the LAPD standards make suspicious activity reporting more transparent.

John Cohen, a spokesman for ODNI’s Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment, said that a suspicious activity report filed by a police officer would not automatically be shared outside a local department and would be passed to a fusion center and ultimately to the federal information-sharing environment only if it became part of an investigation or was found to be relevant.

“Photographing the Washington Monument is not a crime, but photographing the Washington Monument in furtherance of a conspiracy to blow it up is a crime,” Cohen said.

The ACLU’s German said suspicious activity reporting relies on the observer’s prejudices and deputizes local law enforcement officials as members of an ad hoc domestic intelligence agency. “What you are going to be collecting is a lot of information that has nothing to do with any crime,” he said.

However, Cohen said guidelines that make suspicious activity reporting for counterterrorism operations part of familiar crime fighting procedures will decrease profiling and enable police officers to make better informed decisions. 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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