By Kelly Goff
LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles city commission is planning a wide-ranging series of forums to examine both the impact of police surveillance programs in local communities and allegations of continued ethnic profiling within those programs, officials said Wednesday.
Members of the city's Human Relations Commission responded to calls from local activist groups to recommend changes to the Los Angeles Police Department's controversial anti-terrorism program known as Suspicious Activity Reporting, as well as their general unease over the agency's intelligence-gathering methods.
"There have been quite a few groups who have expressed concern over profiling in some of LAPD's programs and how the gang injunctions impact communities," said Patricia Villasenor, executive director of the commission. "So what we'd like to do is hear from residents and law enforcement, and then we'll prepare a report on public safety with recommendations. We want to see what the relationship between the community members and the Police Department is like at this point."
She said the series of forums will take place in different geographic areas of the city beginning in June.
The commission has been heavily lobbied by activists to take up the issue of Suspicious Activity Reporting. Comprising LAPD's Special Order 1 and its companion surveillance program, iWatch, Suspicious Activity Reporting allows the department's anti-terrorism units to keep and maintain files on anyone reported for suspicious behavior that could be construed as a link to terrorism.
The list of activities includes taking photos of public buildings, using binoculars and taking notes about building measurements. If deemed credible, the reports are kept by the department for up to a year. They are also shared with the FBI's Joint Regional Intelligence Center, where they are stored for five years.
"I think part of the concern is that it's almost impossible to know if there is a report on you," said James Lafferty, executive director of the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. "If there was a report on me, they won't tell me. And you have no recourse if there is. I ought to have a chance to challenge it if there is."
First implemented in 2008 by then Police Chief William Bratton, the order almost immediately came under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups — including the National Press Photographers Association — that decried its broad definition of the term "suspicious" and its lack of a reasonable suspicion threshold, thereby opening up photographers, architecture enthusiasts and even tourists to department scrutiny.
In late 2012, the LAPD added language to the order that specifically bars reports taken on the basis of race, creed or religion, and the department has routinely insisted the program is vital to public safety from terrorist cells.
Those assertions have done little to quell criticism of the practice.
"For me, what's concerning is that even with the modifications, it still leaves the term 'reasonable indication' in there, which means this report can be filed on you without a criminal act," said Jamie Garcia, a nurse from Boyle Heights who spoke to the commission Tuesday. "Are we going to give away our human right to privacy?"
While any reports produced by the commission would not be legally binding and the LAPD is under no obligation to consider it when making policy, activists say it would put pressure on the department to limit the scope of the project.
"This is really a grass-roots effort," said Hamid Khan, campaign coordinator for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a joint effort of several local activist groups who have championed the recision of Suspicious Activity Reporting. "Their report would not be legally binding, but it creates its own leverage. It's building a process to expose this."
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