Over the objections of some civil liberties groups, the Los Angeles Police Commission approved controversial new guidelines Tuesday for when LAPD officers can document suspicious behavior they believe could be linked to terrorism.
The five-member civilian oversight panel unanimously approved a special order that gives officers the authority to write reports on people whose actions might not break any laws, such as taking a photograph of a power plant.
The LAPD revised its policy in response to criticism so that officers are now specifically forbidden to engage in racial and other profiling and the department is required to conduct regular audits of the program. In addition, the LAPD agreed to establish an advisory board and to regularly purge its records of unfounded suspicions.
In urging the commission to approve the new policy, department officials said it would help protect the public from what they said was the very real threat of terrorism.
"We have active terrorist plots in this region right now," Deputy Chief Michael Downing, head of the LAPD's counter-terrorism bureau, told commissioners. In an interview with The Times, Downing said that such terrorism activity amounts to helping with financing and organization of terrorism and not a specific plan to carry out an attack in the region.
Downing assured the commission that no one would be targeted because of race, creed or religion. "It has nothing to do with profiling people, it is about behavior," he said. He also said that officers completed 547 suspicious activity reports last year but that the number including people's names amounted to little more than a dozen.
Some civil libertarians faulted the commission for not making more significant reforms and cited the department's history of violating public privacy, including its 1950s Red Squad that hunted communists and its activities spying on critics in the 1980s.
"We ought to be ashamed of ourselves," said attorney Jim Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild. He said the program, which also encourages residents to contact police about suspicions, would encourage neighbors to spy on neighbors.
Los Angeles police created the so-called Suspicious Activity Report program in March 2008, asking officers to complete reports whenever they observed or received accounts of someone engaged in one of many activities that experts have identified as possible precursors to a terrorist act.
Many of the actions on the list were illegal and raised obvious red flags, such as attempting to acquire illegal explosives or biological agents. But the program immediately ignited controversy over the way it allowed officers to also document noncriminal activity.
LAPD officials said officers need to be vigilant for activity that might be lawful but also might be a sign of an impending terrorist strike. Downing said terrorists typically watch target sites for a period of time before acting and conduct rehearsals by leaving bags or other items at a location they intend to attack.
The new policy, he said, was drafted after discussions with concerned community groups, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Salam Al-Marayati, the council's president, described the policy changes as necessary improvements and credited the department with listening to his organization's concerns.
He described the commission's vote as "an important step in new approaches in dealing with the terrorist threat while preserving constitutional rights."
The new policy advises officers against reporting activity generally protected by the 1st Amendment "unless additional facts and circumstances can be clearly articulated that support an officer's or agency's determination that the behavior observed is reasonably indicative of criminal activity associated with terrorism or other criminal activity."
Peter Bibring, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, accused the department of breaking a promise to make an additional change that would have gone further by requiring that officers have a "reasonable suspicion" of an illegal act before they documented the activity.
"It does not reflect our most fundamental concern," Bibring said. "It targets lawful activity."
Downing said the department never made such a promise, adding that the new policy meets the standards adopted by the federal government on reporting suspicious activity.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told commissioners that he was aware of the department's checkered history when it came to people's privacy but said the department had to take the threat of terrorism seriously.
"This is not a paper tiger," Beck said.