The next time a tourist snaps a picture of the famous Hollywood sign, their photo won’t be the only item added to the annals. The LAPD considers photography a suspicious activity, and trying to take certain shots may add a page to your personal file.
A memo released last month by Police Chief Charlie Bucks re-categorizes certain behaviors — including photo shoots in public spots — to constitute suspicious activity, which is enough to have cops file a report, open an investigation and forward any further information about a suspect to the federal authorities — all over just an itchy shutter finger.
In an interdepartmental statement dispatched on August 16, Beck writes, “Taking pictures or videos of facilities/buildings, infrastructures or protected sites in a manner that would arouse suspicion in a reasonable person” is enough of a red flag to have authorities file a suspicious activity report, or SAR. According to departmental policies, those SAR files are then sent into a Consolidated Crime and Analysis Database (CCAD), where they are occasionally added to a Crime Analysis Mapping System (CAMS) for further investigation. From there, intelligence can be stored in a Information Sharing Environment (ISE) Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Shared Space and accessed at fusion centers across the country, such as the LA area’s Joint Regional Intelligence Center, where other intel is interpreted, dissected and divulged by agencies like the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security.
In a 2010 evaluation conducted by the US Justice Department, the DoJ writes, “Ultimately, the ISE-SAR EE, through the use of the Shared Spaces concept, provides a solution for law enforcement agencies to share terrorism-related suspicious activity information, while continuing to maintain control of their data through a distributed model of information sharing.”(.pdf)
Further in the report, the Justice Department determined that “The FBI and DHS should continue to support the interface with the Shared Space environment to allow continue ease of sharing SAR data with all law enforcement agencies,” which now includes any reports written up for something as boring as a blurry snapshot. Under the LAPD’s 2008 guidelines, taking photographs or video footage “with no apparent esthetic value” could warrant filing a SAR, but the department has now broadened what they considered potential terroristic activity.
According to the latest LAPD memo, the office notes that the suspicious behavior included on their updated list is “generally protected by the First Amendment” and should not be reported in a SAR, but could be considered if the witness thinks the action in question is “reasonably indicative of criminal activity associated with terrorism,” an explanation that is as broad and open ended as the NDAA, the federal legislation signed last year that lets the government imprison Americans without charge over suspected ties with affiliates of al-Qaeda.
On the official website of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU writes, broadly speaking, “Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right… Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply."
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone tells the Center for Investigative Reporting that just as any civilian can shoot photos in public spaces, though, surveillance from the authorities is allowed as well. “This would be constitutional under existing law, as long as the government is not doing this in a discriminatory manner,” Stone says. “There may be some constitutional limitations on the government’s use or preservation of such information, but at present, such limitations do not exist, except perhaps in truly egregious circumstances.”
In the days after the latest memo was made public, a backlash directed at the LAPD forced the police commission to establish a five-member civil oversight panel to decide on a set of guidelines for when SARs can be written. The Los Angeles Times reports that the panel unanimously approved an order that will continue to allow officers to write up SARs on any activity that can be interpreted, somehow, as a terroristic threat, however, and things don’t end there either.
Trying to take a picture isn’t the only action being elevated to the level of potential-terrorism in LA. In last month’s memo, Chief Bucks writes, “Demonstrating unusual interest in facilities/buildings, infrastructures or protected sites beyond mere casual or professional (e.g., engineers) interest, such that a reasonable person would consider the activity suspicious.” Examples, he adds, include observations through binoculars, taking notes and attempting to measure distances.
Days after the LAPD memo was made public, Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commanding officer of the LAPD’s counter-terrorism unit, told members of the media, “In this region we have active terrorist plots, in this region, right now,” although authorities have not corroborated those claims with details for the public yet. Chief Downing later told the Times that he was unaware of any specific terrorism plot aimed at targeting the city, but was adamant that law enforcement should be on the ready to handle any reports.
The lengths at which they will go to in an effort to stay ahead of the game has others worried scared, though.
"We ought to be ashamed of ourselves," National Lawyers Guild attorney Jim Lafferty tells the Times.
In an op-ed published this week in the Huffington Post, Yaman Salahi of the American Civil Liberties Union says the LAPD’s latest memo makes it so that cops can consider “Anyone snapping a photograph or taking notes in a public place [as] a potential threat to public safety.”
“This kind of information sharing might sound good in theory, but a recent study from George Washington University, co-authored by the LAPD's very own Deputy Chief Michael Downing, the head of the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, found that suspicious activity reporting has ‘flooded fusion centers, law enforcement, and other security entities with white noise.’ In practice, the profusion of SAR reports ‘complicates the intelligence process and distorts resource allocation and deployment decisions,’" Salahi writes. “The head of LAPD's own counterterrorism bureau knows that low value SAR reports hurt counterterrorism efforts more than they help. So we should ask the LAPD to take the simple steps necessary to protect our free speech and privacy rights, and to stop harassing people engaged in perfectly lawful – and often, constitutionally protected – activities.”
Because the LAPD is now narrowing their eyes to focus in on suspicious activity at critical infrastructure sites, seemingly normal behavior anywhere — from power plants and theme parks to even a basketball game — can get you in trouble. In 2004, then Mayor Jim Hahn said, “Los Angeles’ critical infrastructure goes beyond power plants and water mains and includes facilities like Staples Center, which generates millions of dollars for our economy and is, thanks to the Lakers, an internationally-known symbol of Los Angeles.”
LA was awarded $3 million that year through the Urban Area Security Initiative Operation Archangel grant to protect its infrastructure, including the Staples Center, Disneyland and Hollywood Boulevard, and began their involvement in the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI) a few years later.
As RT wrote earlier this year as part of their ongoing investigation into the TrapWire surveillance system, the portal on the LAPD’s website that allows for civilians to contribute anonymous SARs is linked with an international intelligence database, as are surveillance cameras across the city. The iWatch reporting program has also been picked up in Washington, DC, where emails perpetrated to have been hacked from the servers of Strategic Forecasting last year suggest that the police department and closed-circuit cameras across the nation’s capital are tied to TrapWire as well. Intelligence collected in those instances are also fed to nationally-run fusion centers.