Crime & Justice

Terrorism: What happens to those named in LAPD 'suspicious activity reports'?

LAPD's Suspicious Activity Reporting program is designed to prevent terrorist attacks.
LAPD's Suspicious Activity Reporting program is designed to prevent terrorist attacks.

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The LAPD’s Inspector General Tuesday said the department collected 215 reports of possible terrorism-related activity in the city during the fiscal year that ended June 30. Of those, 161 were found to be legitimate and forwarded to a federal government database for sharing with other law enforcement agencies.

But what happened to the people named in those reports is a mystery.  The LAPD’s top counter-terrorism chief refused to say.  

 “There are cases that were opened as a result of the suspicious activity reporting,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Downing, who heads the counterterrorism bureau.“But that’s all I can say about that.”

Critics worry that innocent people are being caught up in that web.

“It’s a secret program,” said James Lafferty, president of the National Lawyers Guild.Lafferty. “It has no due process. It violates the Constitution.” 

Downing’s comments followed an L.A. Police Commission meeting where the inspector general issued a generally positive report on the LAPD’s Suspicious Activity Reports, or SAR program. IG Alexander Bustamante said he found no evidence of racial profiling and only  six cases that should not have generated a suspicious activity report in the first place.

Under the program, two conditions must be present for the department to refer the names of people to the Joint Regional Intelligence Center. First, the observed activity must be “reasonably indicative of intelligence gathering or pre-operational planning related to terrorism,” according to an LAPD special order. Second, the activity must be one of 16 specific activities.

The activities range from the relatively innocuous, like taking pictures of sensitive buildings, to the more obvious, such as stockpiling weapons. Here is a breakdown of the activities that led to the reports, according to Inspector General Alexander Bustamante.

Downing said photographing a sensitive building would not alone prompt a report. Detectives would follow up to determine if there was any evidence of a possible link to planning an attack.

“I think it has to be clearly articulable as to why the photography has a nexus to terrorism,” Downing told the commission. “It's the targeting of security personnel, the targeting of security cameras, or places of mass gatherings.”

“There were no cases where simply taking a photograph translated into a SAR report,” Bustamante said.

Critics have long worried that the types of activities that can generate a suspicious activity report are too broad and the names of innocent people end up in databases.

“Show me any one of these suspicious activity reports that led to a conviction, that led to an arrest, that stopped an act of terrorism,” said Lafferty, of the lawyers guild.

Downing defended the program, which encourages people to report suspicious activity. The inspector general found 80 percent of reports were initiated by citizens calling police.

“At this point in our history – 14 years after 9/11 – we need people to stand up and help us. This threat is real and serious,” Downing said.  “The threats we face today are asymmetrical.”