Suspicious Activity Reporting to go Nationwide

Suspicious Activity Reporting to go Nationwide

After September 11, 2001, Congress ordered the creation of an “information sharing environment” to improve communication between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Instead of better “connecting the dots,” the government and law enforcement executives developed a problematic system to generate more data dots concerning everyday activities. This counterproductive effort threatens to erode community trust and clog intelligence pipelines with junk data derived from racial, ethnic, religious, and ideological bias. While information sharing is a worthy goal, the shift in focus to “non-criminal activity” can only make the task harder; it is problematic for a democratic society from the standpoints of both safety and civil liberties.

“[Suspicious Activity Reporting] is one issue that will re-shape the American experience as we know it and yet most of us are uninformed.  This report can help you begin to learn about the issue.”  — Bilal Kaleem, Exec. Director of Muslim American Society of Boston
Having recently completed a two-year pilot project in twelve cities nationwide, the Department of Justice and Director of National Intelligence are prepared to link up local “Suspicious Activity Reporting” (SAR) programs into a national network and deploy it to all 72 intelligence fusion centers. Platform for Prejudice outlines this push to enlist law enforcement as intelligence officers by encouraging police to report 1st Amendment protective activities like photography, taking notes, making diagrams, and “espousing extremist views.”  The report concludes that the Congress should hold hearings to evaluate the lawfulness and effectiveness of suspicious activity reporting and order reforms prior to nationwide implementation.

“The[state-federal] collaborations detailed in this report fuse the atom of sovereignty in ways that would have been especially troubling to a Founding generation concerned with a distant leviathan exercising unaccountable powers.” – Aziz Huq, Asst. Professor, University of Chicago Law School

In this report, which includes a case study of Los Angeles’ SAR-processing center, PRA:

  • Exposes the structural flaws that promote a reliance on existing prejudices and stereotypes;
  • Explains how the program erodes our Constitutional civil liberties;
  • Places the SAR Initiative in the context of a vast domestic intelligence matrix; and
  • Questions the basic soundness of the new “Intelligence Led Policing” paradigm

“PRA’s report unmasks a new government initiative with the sole function of further criminalizing immigrants and communities of color . . . It exposes this program for what it is – a mechanism that inevitably fosters wide-spread racial profiling and perilously ineffective public safety policies.” – Manisha Vaze, Organizer for Families for Freedom


CAIR and the Islamic Shura Council host PRA at a Town Hall Forum in Anaheim, CA

On March 5, 2010, PRA Civil Liberties project leader Thomas Cincotta and investigator Mary Fisher joined ACLU attorney Peter Bibring and Shakeel Syed, director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California to discuss the institutionalization of suspicious activity reporting, the unconstitutional aspects of Los Angeles’ Special Order #11, and the effects of the programs on communities. The event was also co-sponsored by Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. Listen to audio from the event.

Take Action:

Past instances of government abuses, such as FBI’s COINTELPRO program, indicate that the traditionally secretive and insular security apparatus tends to act independent of executive, legislative, and judicial mandates, particularly if oversight is lax or its mission is inadequately defined.  Beyond specific post-9/11 policies and initiatives, the organizational and legal framework underlying the current domestic security apparatus are designed to outlast any immediate crisis and may pose a long-term threat to civil liberties.  In any event, it is difficult to marshal the will to turn back that which is not even understood.

To build pressure for institutional reform, there is a critical need to expose current domestic security and surveillance practices.  In 1971, a group of activists calling themselves the Commission to Investigate the FBI obtained and publicly released the first public disclosure of the FBI’s COINTELPRO tactics – large scale covert efforts to disrupt legitimate political activities.  The FBI revelations, coupled with disclosures of improper activity by the CIA and NSA, eventually caused Congress to establish select committees to investigate such abuses.

PRA’s Civil Liberties Project aspires to expose and demystify the working of the domestic surveillance infrastructure.  We aim to produce actionable information that supports local and national efforts for civil liberties defense and reform.

You can help by shedding light on domestic security practices in your city and state.

Published on PublicEye