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Police Commission approves changes to counterterrorism program

LAPD says it's continuing to work with community groups to refine controversial counterterrorism program.
LAPD says it's continuing to work with community groups to refine controversial counterterrorism program.
Andres Aguila/KPCC

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The Police Commission codified changes to a counterterrorism program known as "Suspicious Activity Reporting" (SAR) Tuesday.

Civil liberties advocates had been in negotiations with LAPD for months over the program, which enables local law enforcement to act on reports of activities that may not be obviously criminal if they believe information-gathering could serve national security.

It also shares gathered information with federal and state agencies, creating a database of people, events and activities that law enforcement could potentially use to identify trends and patterns in their quest to stifle terrorism.

SAR was developed in Los Angeles as a way to help prevent terrorist attacks, and has been replicated nationally in a number of cities. 

The problem with the program, civil liberties advocates have said, is that innocuous activities — like taking pictures of an airplane, pointing binoculars at a bridge or praying in a parking lot — can look suspicious. And, they point out, when it comes to Muslim Americans, officers and civilians alike may be more likely to find normal behavior suspect.

That's the reasoning a number of speakers before the Police Commission gave for insisting the program be thrown out altogether.

"The program still has a fundamental flaw," said Peter Bibring of the ACLU of Southern California. "It's a flaw that we have already fixed as a society, a flaw that the LAPD fixed 25 years ago when intelligence gathering was rampant and a problem. It targets as suspcious activity, the law abiding activity of law-abiding residents. Enabling and in fact, directing officers to collect and maintain that information without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity."

Tuesday's changes, agreed upon last month but now put in place officially, ensure that among other things, LAPD's Inspector General will monitor the program for racial profiling.

The police commissioners also promised to stay vigilant about overseeing SAR as its utility and problems become more evident. Many in attendance said the program would remain a threat to privacy and civil liberties no matter how many times LAPD tweaks and refines the details.