LAPD to alter policy on data possibly related to terrorism

In the face of privacy concerns, the Los Angeles Police Department has agreed to change the way it collects information on suspicious activity possibly related to terrorism.

The department, after coming under fire from civil liberties and community groups, will no longer hold on to so-called suspicious activity reports that the LAPD’s counter-terrorism unit determines are about harmless incidents.

Until now, the department stored the innocuous reports in a database for a year. That gave rise to worries among critics of the reporting program that personal information about people who had done nothing wrong could be entered inappropriately into the federal government’s vast network of counter-terrorism databases and watch lists.

“The agreed-upon reforms by LAPD are a victory for partnerships between communities and law enforcement nationwide,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

In March 2008, LAPD officers began filing the reports, referred to as SARs in police parlance. They were instructed to complete a report whenever they observed or received an account 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 some were activities that broke no laws and, taken on their own, did not point to terrorism. Taking a photo of or drawing a building, or using binoculars to look around, were examples critics raised of activities that could trigger a SAR regardless of whether there was any ill intent.

Once completed by an officer, a SAR is forwarded to the department’s Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, where officers conduct a follow-up investigation to assess if there is a threat. Under the new procedures, hard copies of SARs will be destroyed and electronic versions deleted once officers conclude that the reports had no significance.

As before, information about suspicious activity will be forwarded to a regional analysis center for further vetting and, if necessary, onward for investigation by federal authorities.

Because the LAPD’s analysts find that the vast majority of SARs should be forwarded, it appears the change will have a relatively small impact. Of about 2,700 SARs collected, for example, the LAPD sent all but 66 of them on to the regional analysis center, according to 2010 figures that critics cited in a letter to Chief Charlie Beck. And of the 547 SARs collected in 2011, only 13 included a person’s name, said Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who oversees the LAPD’s counter-terrorism operation.

Regardless, Al-Marayati and others praised the department for its willingness to address their concerns.

“It was a legitimate point,” Downing said. “We listened.”