By Maegan Ortiz
An East Los Angeles College student could be labeled suspicious person and not even know it.
This is because of a partnership between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and state law enforcement partners inviting people to file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) on strangers and friends.
One of those law enforcement partners is the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The entire Los Angeles Community College District, including ELAC, contracts the LASD for law enforcement services.
The SAR program was launched in 2008 by the federal government to try and predict and prevent terrorist attacks. One aspect of the program is the FBI’s eGuardian program, which collects and shares Suspicious Activity Reports with other federal agencies – including Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
It is important to note that these reports only label someone as suspicious, not guilty of any act of terrorism.
Yet, these reports are stored indefinitely. They are stored in dozens of state and regional surveillance collection hubs, known as fusion centers.
The Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC) in Norwalk serves as the locus of information for the seven county’s jurisdiction of the FBI Los Angeles field office.
One criticism of the SAR program is that suspicious behavior usually is everyday behavior.
A lack of a uniform definition of what makes an act suspicious gives law enforcement too much discretion. For example, if a student has ever taken a photograph of a building, inquired about hours of operation, drawn a sketch of a building, used binoculars, or taken notes, he could have a SAR against him.
The aforementioned behaviors are examples of actual reasons the LASD have issued reports. The subjects of many of these reports are Arab, Middle Eastern, Latino and African Americans leading to accusations of racial, ethnic and religious profiling.
These SAR were released only because of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2011 claiming the agency violated the Freedom of Information Act.
The FBI says that SAR creation and sharing is another tool in the war on terror. They have launched nationwide marketing campaigns in public areas inviting people to participate in filing reports with the slogan “If you see something, say something.”
However, locally individuals and organizations are questioning the indiscriminate use of the tool.
Last month, the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission passed a motion to hold hearings on suspicious activity reporting, gang injunctions, and other profiling issues.
Even portions of the federal government have raised issues about the effectiveness of the SAR program. A report issued by a U.S. Senate subcommittee last year said the program “often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS (Department of Homeland Security).” The report also noted that there was no evidence that SAR ever uncovered a terrorist threat or disrupted an active terrorist plot.
While federal and local law enforcement have an obligation to prevent and fight terrorism, they cannot do so by violating the first amendment and privacy rights of individuals. SAR should be based only on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Actions protected by the United States Constitution such as taking pictures and videos should not be considered suspicious. Additionally, the fact that the SAR program has yet to reveal a terrorist plot since its inception shows how intelligence-led policing isn’t smart.