Editor's Note: This article supplements this week's cover story on FBI surveillance
By Sasha Hippard
As the federal government battles presumed threats to national security in this post-9/11 world, once-important distinctions between local and national police agencies have been blurred. But as local officers get drawn into federal counterterrorism operations and immigration crackdowns, and as their departments beef up with tanks and other military hardware, citizens and civil libertarians are pushing back on the creeping police state.
In the last year, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and other cities have set limits on the participation by local officers in FBI’s surveillance operations of law-abiding citizens. San Jose has refused to honor federal immigration holds, creating a model for other sanctuary cities. And in Berkeley, citizens and politicians have taken a deliberate approach to limit their police department’s cooperation with the feds on several fronts.
“I don’t think most people understand just how dramatically the balance between government power and individual liberties has shifted in the last 10 years,” says Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a Washington DC-based nonprofit that has worked with Berkeley, San Francisco, and other cities on the issue.
Local activist group Coalition for a Safe Berkeley, the city’s Peace and Justice Commission, and the ACLU of Northern California have asked the Berkeley City Council to bring police practices in line with local values and state constitutional standards.
They held a special town hall meeting on June 9 to discuss ways to limit the Berkeley Police Department’s cooperation with the larger police state, the latest step in a methodical political process that began last year (see “Policing the police,” 12/12/11).
Concerned citizens were joined by representatives from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), Berkeley Police Department, and the Berkeley Police Review Commission. The workshop highlighted how federal partnerships with local law enforcement take the power from the hands of the city and place it under the control of the federal government.
Activists urged the city to terminate its relationship with the NCRIC, a so-called “fusion center” that culls information gathered by local, state, and federal agencies in ways they believe violates the right to privacy that is enshrined in the California Constitution, at least until limits on the gathering and use of that information can be clearly established.
Like all fusion centers, NICRIC’s primary goal is to promote information-sharing between state and local government and various federal agencies such as the FBI, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security. Of particular concern are reports NICRIC issues about people who have caught the attention of authorities for one reason or another.
Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, serve as the primary source of information gathering for fusion centers, which ask law enforcement agents and civilians to report activity based on whether or not it would “rouse suspicion in a reasonable person.” NCRIC’s Mike Sean listed off a number of possible report-worthy actions that ranged from cyber attacks and theft to photographing a building and “questioning personnel beyond a level of curiosity.” SARs rely on the vague “reasonable suspicion standard” to determine whether or not there is criminal intent behind activities.
Buttar said many citizens assume that the federal police state excesses of old -- such as the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, which spied on and sabotaged people who were critical of the government -- are no longer happening. But with technology making it easier to gather ever-more information about private citizens, “there’s even more reason to be concerned by this government surveillance now.”
State and local privacy protections, as well as court rulings interpreting them, generally require an “articulable criminal predicate” -- or reasonable suspicion that the target is doing something illegal -- before police agencies can conduct surveillance on people.
But SARs flood local authorities with potentially false reports of criminal activity, opening the door to racial profiling and unwarranted surveillance and potentially pitting groups of citizens against one another, with implications that can last for years.
“What happens if my neighbor who really doesn’t like me makes a report and it makes it to the level of filing?” Berkeley City Council member Linda Maio asked at the meeting, “How does that effect my future interactions with law enforcement?”
Civil libertarians say the answers to those questions are as unsettling as they are unclear, deliberately so, despite efforts to seek a fuller understanding on how the police state gathers and processes information.
“[The ACLU] has concerns about the plethora of information gathered by NICRIC” Julia Mass, an ACLU staff attorney, said at the hearing. She said police should be looking at reports of “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, not reasonable suspicion of suspicious activity.”
The counterterrorism tactics taken on by local police forces are not limited to policy change. In Berkeley, a grant of $200,000 by the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) allowed the Berkeley Police Department to purchase a military-grade armored vehicle. This purchase went unnoticed by the City Council.
Berkeley Cop Watch, an all-volunteer organization that monitors police action, only discovered information about the purchase through a public records request. The police department’s request for the grant was a one-time cash request and therefore not presented to the council for approval.
While Police Chief Michael Meehan insisted the vehicle has “only defensive not offensive capabilities,” there is no difference between the tank in Berkeley and the tanks used by the military except that the weapons have been removed. As one audience member proclaimed during the meeting: “If they’ve got it, they’ll use it.”
The police chief went on to say that the decision to buy this vehicle was based on the “need to protect our officers” and an agreement between the city police and UC Berkeley Police Department has been made to store the tank on a campus with a history of clashes between police and peaceful protesters.
The purchase of the tank raises concerns not only about the increasing militarization of local police forces, but the lack of transparency in regards to agreements between federal agencies and local law enforcement. Sharon Adams of the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley said she feels “a level of betrayal that the police were doing this the whole time and we only found out through Cop Watch.”
The coalition seeks to terminate the relationship between Berkeley Police Department and UASI, which also funds NICRIC fusion centers. The increasingly close relationship between local police and federal agencies has had a particularly significant impact on immigration reform.
Through the Secure Communities database the federal government uses to track and hold detainees in local jails across the country, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) essentially coopts local police to act as federal immigration agents. works with local police authorities to target and detain suspected undocumented immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security has recently made ICE a requirement for all jurisdictions in the nation, but the increase in non-crime related deportations that have occurred have caused many communities in the Bay Area to resist the partnership.
In response, Assembly memeber Tom Ammiano has been pushing for the approval of the state-wide TRUST Act, which would allow communities to op-out of Secure Communities, undoing what Mass calls “the lynch pin between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.”
The city is not reimbursed for the holding fees by the federal government and it unfairly targets individuals who are not be involved in any criminal activity. While the Coalition and ACLU recommend the Berkeley Police Department not enforce civil immigration detainers under any circumstances, the Police Review Commission suggests instead that enforcement would only occur where an arrestee has been charged with a serious or violent felony offense in the last five years.
Although the work session was intended to present Council members with enough information to vote on various motions of revision to the Berkeley Police Department’s mutual aid memoranda of understanding with federal agencies, no decisions were made during the later City Council meeting. All proposals will be revisited in September.
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