The commission’s support marks a change in luck for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which has had difficulty gaining serious attention from the LAPD and the police commission. The Coalition has been building a campaign to rescind the LAPD’s suspicious activity reporting system, or SAR program, for over two years.
“Now SARs, for the first time, in a city agency outside of LAPD, is documented,” said Hamid Khan, an organizer for the coalition. “It is now going to be a part of the institutional history. In that context, I think this is a huge victory.”
The SAR program began in LA in 2008 and was later adopted nationally by DHS. It allows police to write secret reports on people’s behavior they believe bears a relationship to terrorism. These reports, which may or may not have the “suspicious” person’s name attached to it, is then sent to DHS fusion centers and shared with over 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, as well as the NSA. The offending person never knows the report was written on them and can only be discovered by obtaining a court order.
Public record requests by the coalition have raised civil rights questions, including questions about the program’s effectiveness. Records have revealed that most SARs are found to be useless by intelligence analysts and tend to be focused on minority groups. For instance, suspicious activity reports have been written on a college professor taking photographs of buildings, a homeless man sleeping in his car and other such non-criminal activity.
“That is what we are fighting — how your life is disrupted, recorded, investigated and stored in databases for 10 years by the LAPD and 30 years by the FBI,” said Khan. “This program now, which LAPD started in March of 2008, is in 46 states, two U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. Every day this reporting is going on.”
The LAPD defends the program, saying it is an important tool in fighting terrorism.
Close to 40 activists attended the Human Relations Commission’s meeting. Members of the coalition have been attending such meetings since April, asking the commissioners to hold public hearings about the SARs program.
Many activists spoke before the commission, raising concerns over privacy, racial profiling and the criminalization of innocent behavior.
Kwazi Nkrumah, a coordinator and co-chair of the Martin Luther King Coalition, spoke personally about his fears of SARs being used for political repression. Nkrumah, who has been organizing against the city attorney’s efforts to implement a gang injunction in Echo Park, was recently charged with allegedly “failing to disperse from a riot” by the city attorney’s office. The riot, however, was a peaceful demonstration involving an act of civil disobedience, which was held in honor of the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary.
According to Nkrumah, the city attorney’s office told him the rioting charge was “just a technical issue,” as the term rioting may come up in a failure to disperse charge. He was concerned that glitches in such paperwork could put people in national databases.
“If people are being put in SARs categories because of taking pictures, certainly anyone who is being labeled as being associated with some kind of riot is going to go into those files, as were the 30 or 40 organizations who took part in that activity or endorsed it,” he said. “In today’s world, this is not just a ‘technical issue.’”
Kei Utsumi criticized the lack of transparency in the SARs program. He said he was against the program because any government that acts in secret becomes totalitarian in nature.
“A government of, by and for people is a government where the people’s voice is seriously listened to,” he said. “We need a public hearing.”
Other testimony focused on gang injunctions, such as the one recently passed in Echo Park, where many organizers argue the community was ignored. Due to Echo Park’s declining crime rate, many feel the injunction is part of a larger strategy to criminalize the poor and gentrify the neighborhood.
The Human Relations Commission intended to only focus on the general issue of profiling, but after hearing public testimony, Commissioner Jehan Agrama motioned that a public hearing or forum be held that specifically addressed “SARs, gang injunctions and other public safety issues” under the profiling umbrella.
Agrama’s motion, however, was quickly rejected by commissioners Nirinjan Singh Khalsa and Keith Rohman, who wanted further discussion on the specific issues that would be discussed at a public hearing or forum. Rohman said the commission had been criticized for being too focused, as well as too generalized, on such issues. He wanted more time to find the right balance.
“I don’t know where SARs fits in,” he said. “I know it’s critical, but … I can’t make that decision today and don’t want this commission to make that decision today.”
Commissioner Melany Dela Cruz-Viesca seconded Agrama’s motion and expressed concern that SARs would get lost in the broader discussion over profiling. “Why can’t we just dedicate one of those [hearings or forums] to SARs?” she said.
The debate then centered around whether or not the commission would use “including” or “inclusive of” in its language in defining the nature of its future public action to appease Rohman and Khalsa. Eventually it was agreed to use “inclusive of” and the motion passed.
“I felt there was really strong resistance from Rohman and Khalsa,” said coalition member Jamie Garcia after the meeting. “It was like they didn’t want to open that box and primarily focus on SARs.”
Overall, members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition were happy with the results of the meeting. Many felt that having a public hearing under the umbrella of profiling would be to their benefit as most people are aware of the issue.
“People don’t even know what SARs is, but they do know what racial profiling is,” said Nkrumah. “So I do think it is going to work.”
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