Despite the steady hue and cry by government agencies about the need for more police, more sophisticated weaponry, and the difficulties of preserving the peace and maintaining security in our modern age, the reality is far different. Indeed, violent crime in America has been on a steady decline, and if current trends continue, Americans will finish the year 2013 experiencing the lowest murder rate in over a century.
Despite this clear referendum on the fact that communities would be better served by smaller, demilitarized police forces, police agencies throughout the country are dramatically increasing in size and scope. Some of the nation’s larger cities boast police forces the size of small armies. (New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg actually likes to brag that the NYPD is his personal army.) For example, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has reached a total of 10,000 officers. It takes its place alongside other cities boasting increasingly large police forces, including New York (36,000 officers) and Chicago (13,400 officers). When considered in terms of cops per square mile, Los Angeles assigns a whopping 469 officers per square mile, followed by New York with 303 officers per square mile, and Chicago with 227 cops per square mile.
Of course, such heavy police presence comes at a price. Los Angeles spends over $2 billion per year on the police force, a 36% increase within the last eight years. The LAPD currently consumes over 55% of Los Angeles’ discretionary budget, a 9% increase over the past nine years. Meanwhile, street repair and maintenance spending has declined by 36%, and in 2011, one-fifth of the city’s fire stations lost units, increasing response times for 911 medical emergencies.
For those who want to credit hefty police forces for declining crime rates, the data just doesn’t show a direct correlation. In fact, many cities across the country actually saw decreases in crime rates during the 1990s in the wake of increasing prison sentences and the waning crack-cocaine epidemic. Cities such as Seattle and Dallas actually cut their police forces during this time and still saw crime rates drop.
As I point out in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, there was a time in our nation’s history when Americans would have revolted against the prospect of city police forces the size of small armies, or rampaging SWAT teams tearing through doors and terrorizing families. Today, the SWAT team is largely sold to the American public by way of the media, through reality TV shows such as Cops, Armed and Famous, and Police Women of Broward County, and by politicians well-versed in promising greater security in exchange for the government being given greater freedom to operate as it sees fit outside the framework of the Constitution.
Having watered down the Fourth Amendment’s strong prohibitions intended to keep police in check and functioning as peacekeepers, we now find ourselves in the unenviable position of having militarized standing armies enforcing the law. Likewise, whereas the police once operated as public servants (i.e., in service to the public), today that master-servant relationship has been turned on its head to such an extent that if we fail to obey anyone who wears a badge, we risk dire consequences.
Consider that in 1980, there were roughly 3,000 SWAT team-style raids in the US. By 2001, that number had grown to 45,000 and has since swelled to more than 80,000 SWAT team raids per year. On an average day in America, over 100 Americans have their homes raided by SWAT teams. In fact, there are few communities without a SWAT team on their police force today. In 1984, 25.6 percent of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team. That number rose to 80 percent by 2005.
The problem, of course, is that as SWAT teams and SWAT-style tactics are used more frequently to carry out routine law enforcement activities, Americans find themselves in increasingly dangerous and absurd situations. For example, in late July 2013, a no-kill animal shelter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was raided by nine Department of Natural Resources (DNR) agents and four deputy sheriffs. The raid was prompted by tips that the shelter was home to a baby deer that had been separated from its mother. The shelter officials had planned to send the deer to a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Illinois, but the agents, who stormed the property unannounced, demanded that the deer be handed over because citizens are not allowed to possess wildlife. When the 13 LEOs entered the property “armed to the teeth,” they corralled the employees around a picnic table while they searched for the deer. When they returned, one agent had the deer slung over his shoulder in a body bag, ready to be euthanized.
When asked why they didn’t simply ask shelter personnel to hand the deer over instead of conducting an unannounced raid, DNR Supervisor Jennifer Niemeyer compared their actions to drug raids, saying “If a sheriff’s department is going in to do a search warrant on a drug bust, they don’t call them and ask them to voluntarily surrender their marijuana or whatever drug that they have before they show up.”
If these raids are becoming increasingly common and widespread, you can chalk it up to the “make-work” philosophy, in which you assign at-times unnecessary jobs to individuals to keep them busy or employed. In this case, however, the make-work principle is being used to justify the use of sophisticated military equipment and, in the process, qualify for federal funding.
It all started back in the 1980s, when Congress launched the 1033 Program to allow the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military goods to state and local police agencies. The 1033 program has grown dramatically, with some 13,000 police agencies in all 50 states and four US territories currently participating. In 2012, the federal government transferred $546 million worth of property to state and local police agencies. This 1033 program allows small towns like Rising Star, Texas, with a population of 835 and only one full-time police officer, to acquire $3.2 million worth of goods and military gear from the federal government over the course of fourteen months.
Military equipment sent to small towns has included high-powered weapons, assault vehicles and tactical gear. However, after it was discovered that local police agencies were failing to keep inventories of their acquired firearms and in some cases, selling the equipment for a profit, the transfer of firearms was temporarily suspended until October 2013. In the meantime, police agencies can still receive a variety of other toys and gizmos, including “aircraft, boats, Humvees, body armor, weapon scopes, infrared imaging systems and night-vision goggles,” not to mention more general items such as “bookcases, hedge trimmers, telescopes, brassieres, golf carts, coffee makers and television sets.”
In addition to equipping police with militarized weapons and equipment, the government has also instituted an incentive program of sorts, the Byrne Formula Grant Program, which awards federal grants based upon “the number of overall arrests, the number of warrants served or the number of drug seizures.” A sizable chunk of taxpayer money has kept the program in full swing over the years. Through the Clinton administration, the program was funded with about $500 million. By 2008, the Bush administration had reduced the budget to about $170 million, less out of concern for the militarization of police forces and more to reduce federal influence on law enforcement matters. However, Barack Obama boosted the program again at the beginning of his term, using the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to inject $2 billion into the program.
When it comes to SWAT-style tactics being used in routine policing, the federal government is one of the largest offenders, with multiple agencies touting their own SWAT teams, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Consumer Product Safety Commission, NASA, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the US National Park Service, and the FDA.
Clearly, the government has all but asphyxiated the Fourth Amendment, but what about the Third Amendment, which has been interpreted to not only prohibit the quartering of soldiers in one’s home and martial law but standing armies? While most Americans—and the courts—largely overlook this amendment, which at a minimum bars the government from stationing soldiers in civilian homes during times of peace, it is far from irrelevant to our age. Indeed, with some police units equivalent in size, weaponry and tactics to military forces, a case could well be made that the Third Amendment is routinely being violated every time a SWAT team crashes through a door.
A vivid example of this took place on July 10, 2011, in Henderson, Nevada, when local police informed homeowner Anthony Mitchell that they wanted to occupy his home in order to gain a “tactical advantage” in dealing with a domestic abuse case in an adjacent home. Mitchell refused the request, but this didn’t deter the police, who broke down Mitchell’s front door using a battering ram. Five officers pointed weapons at him, ordering him to the ground, where they shot him with pepper-ball projectiles.
The point is this: America today is not much different from the America of the early colonists, who had to contend with British soldiers who were allowed to “enter private homes, confiscate what they found, and often keep the bounty for themselves.” This practice is echoed today through SWAT team raids and the execution of so-called asset forfeiture laws, “which allow police to seize and keep for their departments cash, cars, luxury goods and even homes, often under only the thinnest allegation of criminality.”
It is this intersection of law enforcement and military capability which so worried the founding fathers and which should worry us today. What Americans must decide is what they’re going to do about this occupation of our cities and towns by standing armies operating under the guise of keeping the peace.
Law enforcement agencies are increasingly using sophisticated cameras, called “automated license plate readers” or ALPR, to scan and record the license plates of millions of cars across the country. These cameras, mounted on top of patrol cars and on city streets, can scan up to 1,800 license plate per minute, day or night, allowing one squad car to record more than 14,000 plates during the course of a single shift.
Photographing a single license plate one time on a public city street may not seem problematic, but when that data is put into a database, combined with other scans of that same plate on other city streets, and stored forever, it can become very revealing. Information about your location over time can show not only where you live and work, but your political and religious beliefs, your social and sexual habits, your visits to the doctor, and your associations with others. And, according to recent research reported in Nature, it’s possible to identify 95% of individuals with as few as four randomly selected geospatial datapoints (location + time), making location data the ultimate biometric identifier.
To better gauge the real threat to privacy posed by ALPR, EFF and the ACLU of Southern California asked LAPD and LASD for information on their systems, including their policies on retaining and sharing information and all the license plate data each department collected over the course of a single week in 2012. After both agencies refused to release most of the records we asked for, we sued. We hope to get access to this data, both to show just how much data the agencies are collecting and how revealing it can be.
ALPRs are often touted as an easy way to find stolen cars — the system checks a scanned plate against a database of stolen or wanted cars and can instantly identify a hit, allowing officers to set up a sting to recover the car and catch the thief. But even when there’s no match in the database and no reason to think a car is stolen or involved in a crime, police keep the data. According to the LA Weekly, LAPD and LASD together already have collected more than 160 million “data points” (license plates plus time, date, and exact location) in the greater LA area—that’s more than 20 hits for each of the more than 7 million vehicles registered in L.A. County. That’s a ton of data, but it’s not all — law enforcement officers also have access to private databases containing hundreds of millions of plates and their coordinates collected by “repo” men.
Law enforcement agencies claim that ALPR systems are no different from an officer recording license plate, time and location information by hand. They also argue the data doesn’t warrant any privacy protections because we drive our cars around in public. However, as five justices of the Supreme Court recognized last year in US v. Jones, a case involving GPS tracking, the ease of data collection and the low cost of data storage make technological surveillance solutions such as GPS or ALPR very different from techniques used in the past.
Police are open about their desire to record the movements of every car in case it might one day prove valuable. In 2008, LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck (then the agency’s chief of detectives) told GovTech Magazine that ALPRs have “unlimited potential” as an investigative tool. “It’s always going to be great for the black-and-white to be driving down the street and find stolen cars rolling around . . . . But the real value comes from the long-term investigative uses of being able to track vehicles—where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing—and tie that to crimes that have occurred or that will occur.” But amassing data on the movements of law-abiding residents poses a real threat to privacy, while the benefit to public safety is speculative, at best.
In light of privacy concerns, states including Maine, New Jersey, and Virginia have limited the use of ALPRs, and New Hampshire has banned them outright. Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police has issued a report recognizing that “recording driving habits” could raise First Amendment concerns because cameras could record “vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors’ offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.”
But even if ALPRs are permitted, there are still common-sense limits that can allow the public safety benefits of ALPRs while preventing the wholesale tracking of every resident’s movements. Police can and should treat location information from ALPRs like other sensitive information — they should retain it no longer than necessary to determine if it might be relevant to a crime, and should get a warrant to keep it any longer. They should limit who can access it and who they can share it with. And they should put oversight in place to ensure these limits are followed.
Unfortunately, efforts to impose reasonable limits on ALPR tracking in California have failed so far. Last year, legislation that would have limited private and law enforcement retention of ALPR data to 60 days—a limit currently in effect for the California Highway Patrol — and restricted sharing between law enforcement and private companies failed after vigorous opposition from law enforcement. In California, law enforcement agencies remain free to set their own policies on the use and retention of ALPR data, or to have no policy at all.
Some have asked why we would seek public disclosure of the actual license plate data collected by the police—location-based data that we think is private. But we asked specifically for a narrow slice of data — just a week’s worth — to demonstrate how invasive the technology is. Having the data will allow us to see how frequently some plates have been scanned; where and when, specifically, the cops are scanning plates; and just how many plates can be collected in a large metropolitan area over the course of a single week. Actual data will reveal whether ALPRs are deployed primarily in particular areas of Los Angeles and whether some communities might therefore be much more heavily tracked than others. If this data is too private to give a week’s worth to the public to help inform us how the technology is being used, then isn’t it too private to let the police amass years’ worth of data without a warrant?
After the Boston Marathon bombings, many have argued that the government should take advantage of surveillance technology to collect more data rather than less. But we should not so readily give up the very freedoms that terrorists seek to destroy. We should recognize just how revealing ALPR data is and not be afraid to push our police and legislators for sensible limits to protect our basic right to privacy.
EFF and ACLU-SC’s legal Complaint
LA Sheriff’s Department ALPR Powerpoint Presentation
LA Sheriff’s Department – Automated License Plate Reader System Information
LA Sheriff’s Department – Field Operations Directive
Let’s not be too quick to dismiss the “ranting” of renegade LAPD officer Chris Dorner.
Dorner, a three-year police veteran and former Lieutenant in the US Navy who went rogue after being fired by the LAPD, has accused Los Angeles Police of systematically using excessive force, of corruption, of being racist, and of firing him for raising those issues through official channels.
By all media accounts, Dorner “snapped” after his firing, and has vowed to kill police in retaliation. He allegedly has already done so, with several people, including police officers and family members of police already shot dead.
Now there’s a “manhunt” involving police departments across California, focusing on the mountains around Big Bear, featuring cops dressed in full military gear and armed with semi-automatic weapons.
Nobody would argue that randomly killing police officers and their family members or friends is justified, but I think that there is good reason to suspect that the things that Dorner claims set him off, such as being fired for reporting police brutality, and then going through a rigged hearing, deserve serious consideration and investigation.
The LAPD has a long history of abuse of minorities (actually the majority in Los Angeles, where whites are now a minority). It has long been a kind of paramilitary force — one which pioneered the military-style Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) approach to “policing.”
If you wanted a good example to prove that nothing has changed over the years, just look at the outrageous incident involving LAPD cops tasked with capturing Dorner, who instead shot up two innocent women who were delivering newspapers in a residential area of Los Angeles. The women, Margie Carranza, 47, and her mother, Emma Hernandez, 71 (now in serious condition in the hospital), were not issued any warning. Police just opened fire from behind them, destroying their truck with heavy semi-automatic fire to the point that it will have to be scrapped and replaced. The two women are lucky to be alive (check out the pattern of bullet holes in the rear window behind the driver’s position in the accompanying photo). What they experienced was the tactics used by US troops on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan, not the tactics that one expects of police. Their truck wasn’t even the right make or color, but LAPD’s “finest” decided it was better to be safe than sorry, so instead of acting like cops, they followed Pentagon “rules of engagement”: They attempted to waste the target.
LAPD officers fired on this car with clear intent to kill (check out the bullet holes behind the driver-seat position). Trouble was, it was the wrong make and wrong color, and instead of Dorner, it was two Latino women, one of whom is now in serious condition from her wounds. No warning was given before the barrage.
Local residents say that after that shooting, which involved seven LAPD officers and over 70 bullets expended, with nobody returning fire, the street and surrounding houses were pockmarked with bullet holes. The Los Angeles Times reports that in the area, there are “bullet holes in cars, trees, garage doors and roofs.”
What we had here was an example of a controversial tactic that the military employed in the Iraq War, and still employs in Afghanistan, called “spray and pray” — a tactic that led directly to the massive civilian casualties during that US war.
We shouldn’t be surprised that two brown-skinned women were almost mowed down by the LAPD–only that they somehow survived all that deadly firing directed at them with clear intent to kill.
The approach taken by those cop-hunting-cops of shooting first and asking questions later suggests that the LAPD in this “manhunt” for one of their own has no intention of capturing Dorner alive and letting him talk about what he knows about the evils rampant in the 10,000-member department. They want him dead.
When I lived in Los Angeles back in the 1970s, it was common for LAPD cops to bust into homes, gestapo-like, at 5 in the morning, guns out, to arrest people for minor things like outstanding court warrants for unpaid parking tickets, bald tires, or jaywalking.
Police helicopters also used to tail me — then an editor of an alternative news weekly — and my wife, a music graduate student, as we drove home at night. Sometimes, they would follow us from our car to front door with a brilliant spotlight, when we’d come home at night to our house in Echo Park. It was an act of deliberate intimidation. (They also infiltrated our newspaper with an undercover cop posing as a wannabe journalist. Her job, we later learned, was to learn who our sources were inside the LAPD — sources who had disclosed such things as that the LAPD had, and probably still has, a “shoot-to-kill” policy for police who fire their weapons.)
Friends in Los Angeles tell me nothing has changed, though of course the police weaponry has gotten heavier and their surveillance capabilities have gotten more sophisticated and invasive.
It is clear from the LAPD’s paramilitary response to the Occupy movement in Los Angeles, which included planting undercover cops among the occupiers, some of whom reportedly were agents provocateur who tried to encourage protesters to commit acts of violence, and which ended with police violence and gratuitous arrests, as in New York, that nothing has changed.
In other words, Dorner may be irrational, but he ain’t crazy.
A black military veteran, Dorner joined the police because he reportedly believed in service. Unable to go along with the militarist policing he saw on the job, he protested through channels and was apparently rewarded by being fired. Now, in his own violent way, he is trying to warn us all that something is rotten in the LAPD, and by extension, in the whole police system in the US. Police departments almost everywhere in the US, have morphed, particularly since 9/11/2001, from a role of providing public safety and law enforcement into agencies of brutal fascist control.
As Dorner says in his lengthy manifesto (actually quite explicit and literate, but described as “ranting” in corporate media accounts), in which he explains his actions and indicts the LAPD, “The enemy combatants in LA are not the citizens and suspects, it’s the police officers.”
That could be said of many US police departments, I’m afraid.
Example: Last fall, I had the experience of trying to hitchhike in my little suburban town. A young cop drove up and informed me (incorrectly, it turns out) that it was illegal to hitchhike in Pennsylvania. When I expressed surprise at this and told him I was a journalist working on an article on hitchhiking, he then threatened me directly, saying that if I continued to try and thumb a ride, he would “take you in and lock you up.”
When I called a lawyer friend and said I was inclined to take the officer up on that threat, since I was within my rights under the law hitchhiking as long as I was standing off the road, he warned me against it, saying, “You don’t know what could happen to you if you got arrested.”
And of course he’s right. An arrest, even a wrongful arrest, in the US these days can lead to an added charge — much more serious — of resisting arrest, with a court basing its judgement on the word of the officer in the absence of any other witnesses. It can also lead to physical injury or worse, if the officer wants to lie and claim that the arrested person threatened him or her.
If I had been in Los Angeles, I would most likely have been locked up for an incident like that. Forget about any warning. You aren’t supposed to talk back to cops in L.A. And if you are black or Latino, the results of such an arrest could be much worse.
I remember once witnessing LAPD cops stopping a few Latino youths who had been joyriding in what might have been a stolen car. There was a helicopter overhead, and perhaps a dozen patrol cars that had converged on the scene, outside a shopping mall in Silverlake. I ran over to see what was happening and watched as the cops grabbed the kids, none of whom was armed, out of the vehicle and slammed them against the car brutally. It was looking pretty ugly, but by then neighbors from the surrounding homes, most of them Latino, who had poured out onto their lawns because of the commotion, began yelling at the cops. One man shouted, “We see what you’re doing. These boys are all healthy. If anything happens to any of them after you arrest them we will report you!”
The cops grudgingly backed off in their attack on the boys, and took them away in a squad car. I don’t know what happened to them after that, but they were most certainly saved, by quick community response, from an on-the-spot Rodney King-style beating that could have seriously injured them, or worse.
As things stand right now, with the LAPD gunning for Dorner, and wanting him dead and silenced, not captured, the public has to worry that it has more to fear from the LAPD than it has to fear from Dorner himself. At least Dorner, in his own twisted way, has specific targets in mind. The LAPD is in “spray and pray” mode.
Chris Dorner, in happier days, now a fugitive on the run from the LAPD “manhunters”
Hopefully, Dorner will realize he can do more by figuring out a safe way to “come in from the cold” so he can try to testify about LAPD crimes, than by killing more cops. If he does manage to surrender, he’d better have a lot of support lined up to keep him safe while in custody.
It’s already clear that a lot of people in the LAPD want him dead.
- Light on the Dark Side of Dorner’s Rampage (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Violent LAPD Shoots First at Anything Resembling Suspect’s Car (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Almost proving the ex-cop Chris Dorner’s point in his manifesto of cops using excessive force, LAPD are the ones who appear to be on a rampage against anyone who’s driving a car even remotely similar to the suspect’s.
The video below tells of how cops have opened fire on yet another innocent vehicle “generally” fitting the description of Dorner’s car. Luckily the innocent driver was uninjured.
Previously, two women were hospitalized after being attacked by police for driving a blue Toyota Tacoma while they were delivering newspapers in a quiet neighborhood. Police were looking for a pickup truck of a different color, make, and model with a supposed connection to Dorner.
Upon seeing this truck drive down a residential neighborhood, police began unloading their weapons on sight. There are almost 40 bullet holes visible in this picture.
Dorner’s original complaint against the corrupt cops in the LAPD stems from their use of excessive force against civilians. And during their crazed man-hunt for Dorner, they seem to be proving his point. Whether or not Dorner is found guilty of these shootings, the LAPD and surrounding precincts are not doing their reputation any justice in their handling of this situation.
Americans will rarely witness the kind of full-scale manhunt now going on throughout Southern California and the San Bernardino mountains as hundreds of heavily armed police and federal agents hunt down Christopher Dorner, a 33-year-old former Los Angeles cop and former Naval officer suspected of three murders.
Homicides are routine in Southern California, but this one is different. As Reuters reported, Dorner is “a fugitive former police officer accused of declaring war on law enforcement in an Internet manifesto.” He allegedly shot two officers in Riverside, killing one of them, and also allegedly murdered the daughter of the former police captain who unsuccessfully represented him in the disciplinary proceedings that led to his firing.
This isn’t about police protecting the public, but police protecting themselves. When one of “theirs” is threatened or killed, police act like invaders. And like any invading army, the public can expect collateral damage. While the national media focused on the basics of the manhunt, there have been too-few reports on the casualties of the ramped-up police presence.
“Emma Hernandez, 71, was delivering the Los Angeles Times with her daughter, Margie Carranza, 47, in the 19500 block of Redbeam Avenue in Torrance on Thursday morning when Los Angeles police detectives apparently mistook their pickup for that of Christopher Dorner, the 33-year-old fugitive suspected of killing three people and injuring two others,” according to a Los Angeles Times blog. “Hernandez, who attorney Glen T. Jonas said was shot twice in the back, was in stable condition late Thursday. Carranza received stitches on her finger.”
The quotation from Jonas was priceless: “The problem with the situation is it looked like the police had the goal of administering street justice and in so doing, didn’t take the time to notice that these two older, small Latina women don’t look like a large black man.”
According to reports, Dorner was driving a different color and different make of Japanese truck from Hernandez and Carranza, but whatever. If I were in Southern California this week, I’d keep the Toyota or Nissan truck in the garage given the number of police eager to mete out “street justice.” Police defenders will no doubt argue that this was a fluke, a case of a poorly trained cop overreacting (because he certainly believed his life to be in danger).
But apologists for police brutality will have a hard time with this case. As the Times blog also reported: “About 25 minutes after the shooting, Torrance police opened fire after spotting another truck similar to Dorner’s at Flagler Lane and Beryl Street.” Fortunately, no one was hurt at that one. If there were injuries, the cops would just shrug it off. The second shooting reminds us that this is how police will routinely behave. Police officials will then adamantly defend this behavior even in the federal court system.
For instance, a case that just recently headed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal highlights the disturbing attitude of police officials toward innocent bystanders. The following are details from plaintiffs, in their lawsuit against the city of Sacramento and two of its “finest”:
On April 10, 2009, California Highway Patrol officers stopped a Honda Civic for having illegal taillights. As the officers approached the car, the driver, Manual Prasad, drove away and eventually crashed his car into a wall and started running in a residential neighborhood. Sacramento city police were called and used their helicopter to pinpoint the fleeing man who climbed a tree in a backyard.
James Paul Garcia and six of his friends had the misfortune of being in the yard where Prassad was hiding out. Without any apparent warning and without checking to see if there were innocent bystanders, the officer released a police dog into the yard. Police dogs are trained to attack and hold suspects, but they are not trained to distinguish between suspects and bystanders.
So “Bandit” headed into the yard, spotted the first person he saw (Garcia) and did what vicious police dogs do to people: bit the heck out of him and held him at the ground, as its teeth punctured Garcia’s leg in several places.
The police and the city of Sacramento argue that this behavior did not violate Garcia’s rights and of course sought every type of immunity to delay the case and keep its officers from facing discipline. The city argued that giving an adequate warning could – let’s repeat it now in unison, given that this is the trump card police always use – “jeopardize officer safety.”
In Anaheim a few years ago, police were tracking a burglary suspect through a neighborhood. A young newlywed came out of his house with a wooden dowel to see what the ruckus was about. The officer shot the bystander to death, then handcuffed him as he lay dying. Police officers reportedly were angry at the chief for apologizing to the family.
That case epitomizes the “us vs. them” mentality common among our highly militarized police forces. I wasn’t surprised, then, when years later the Anaheim Police Department acted like an invading army after residents protested some deadly shootings by police (including, apparently, the shooting of an unarmed man in the back).
When police pursue suspects, it is official, acceptable policy for officers to do anything they need to do to protect their own safety, even if it endangers the public’s safety. My advice – if you see police anywhere near you, stay very far away. And hope they don’t mistake your car for a suspect’s car. In their view, we are only potential collateral damage.
A long-time journalist is suing the Los Angeles Police Department over the alleged manhandling he says he was subjected to while covering an Occupy protest in LA last year.
Reporter Calvin Milam of Los Angeles’ City News Service says police officers with the LAPD tackled him to the ground, restrained him in dangerously tight handcuffs and detained him for hours without charge, all while he was just doing his job as a journalist one evening in late 2011.
Milam has insisted he displayed his press credentials to the LAPD during an Occupy LA rally outside City Hall on November 30, 2011 immediately before he was brought down by the cops.
In the aftermath of the incident, police spokespersons described the scene by portraying Milam as drunk and disorderly during his arrest. The video footage that has surfaced seems to contradict that take, however, and also clearly shows that Milam was acting as a member of the media.
“At some point, the Los Angeles police officers, in full riot gear, began to restrict the egress of those exercising their First Amendment rights and blocked access to leave the premises,” the recently filed complaint reads.
Milam’s attorney, Mark Geragos, tells the Courthouse News Service that the only reason his client wasn’t prosecuted was because video was found “which completely puts lie to what the cops said.”
When Geragos first became aware of the footage in the weeks after the arrest, he told LA Weekly that the footage was “completely at odds” with the accounts offered orally from both the LAPD and the City Attorney’s Office.
“They patently lied about the whole thing. It’s clear to me. I was told the exact same thing. It’s fortunate there’s a video which shows what really happened,” he said last December. “They have now told you two things that are demonstrably false. One, that he didn’t show his press credential. And two, that he was drunk. This guy hasn’t touched a drink in 20 years.”
“It’s astonishing to see that video and then see what was alleged: that he didn’t identify himself, show press credentials and that he was resisting,” Geragos now tells Courthouse News.
LAPD officer Victor Johnson charged Mr. Milam with unlawful assembly during the Nov. 30 incident, but the charges were quickly dropped. He was one of three journalists arrested that night during an event that ended with around 300 being put into cuffs.
Patrick Meighan, a writer for the animated show Family Guy, was one of the hundreds of persons who was arrested during the non-violent protest last year. Recounting the experience in a personal blog post, Meighan wrote that LAPD’s actions that evening were “horrible to watch, and apparently designed to terrorize” anyone who could catch a glimpse.
“It was super violent, it hurt really really bad and he was doing it on purpose,” is how he described his brutal arrest last year.
“What does it say about our country that nonviolent protesters are given the bottom of a police boot while those who steal hundreds of billions, do trillions worth of damage to our economy and shatter our social fabric for a generation are not only spared the zipcuffs but showered with rewards?”
The City of Los Angeles has yet to respond to Mr. Milam’s suit and litigation is “at a very early stage,” Courthouse News reports.
- LAPD refuses to release video of fatal encounter with mother (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- After violent in-custody death, family of Alesia Thomas sues LAPD for video (tv.msnbc.com)
The next time a tourist snaps a picture of the famous Hollywood sign, their photo won’t be the only item added to the annals. The LAPD considers photography a suspicious activity, and trying to take certain shots may add a page to your personal file.
A memo released last month by Police Chief Charlie Bucks re-categorizes certain behaviors — including photo shoots in public spots — to constitute suspicious activity, which is enough to have cops file a report, open an investigation and forward any further information about a suspect to the federal authorities — all over just an itchy shutter finger.
In an interdepartmental statement dispatched on August 16, Beck writes, “Taking pictures or videos of facilities/buildings, infrastructures or protected sites in a manner that would arouse suspicion in a reasonable person” is enough of a red flag to have authorities file a suspicious activity report, or SAR. According to departmental policies, those SAR files are then sent into a Consolidated Crime and Analysis Database (CCAD), where they are occasionally added to a Crime Analysis Mapping System (CAMS) for further investigation. From there, intelligence can be stored in a Information Sharing Environment (ISE) Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Shared Space and accessed at fusion centers across the country, such as the LA area’s Joint Regional Intelligence Center, where other intel is interpreted, dissected and divulged by agencies like the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security.
In a 2010 evaluation conducted by the US Justice Department, the DoJ writes, “Ultimately, the ISE-SAR EE, through the use of the Shared Spaces concept, provides a solution for law enforcement agencies to share terrorism-related suspicious activity information, while continuing to maintain control of their data through a distributed model of information sharing.”(.pdf)
Further in the report, the Justice Department determined that “The FBI and DHS should continue to support the interface with the Shared Space environment to allow continue ease of sharing SAR data with all law enforcement agencies,” which now includes any reports written up for something as boring as a blurry snapshot. Under the LAPD’s 2008 guidelines, taking photographs or video footage “with no apparent esthetic value” could warrant filing a SAR, but the department has now broadened what they considered potential terroristic activity.
According to the latest LAPD memo, the office notes that the suspicious behavior included on their updated list is “generally protected by the First Amendment” and should not be reported in a SAR, but could be considered if the witness thinks the action in question is “reasonably indicative of criminal activity associated with terrorism,” an explanation that is as broad and open ended as the NDAA, the federal legislation signed last year that lets the government imprison Americans without charge over suspected ties with affiliates of al-Qaeda.
On the official website of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU writes, broadly speaking, “Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right… Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply.”
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone tells the Center for Investigative Reporting that just as any civilian can shoot photos in public spaces, though, surveillance from the authorities is allowed as well. “This would be constitutional under existing law, as long as the government is not doing this in a discriminatory manner,” Stone says. “There may be some constitutional limitations on the government’s use or preservation of such information, but at present, such limitations do not exist, except perhaps in truly egregious circumstances.”
In the days after the latest memo was made public, a backlash directed at the LAPD forced the police commission to establish a five-member civil oversight panel to decide on a set of guidelines for when SARs can be written. The Los Angeles Times reports that the panel unanimously approved an order that will continue to allow officers to write up SARs on any activity that can be interpreted, somehow, as a terroristic threat, however, and things don’t end there either.
Trying to take a picture isn’t the only action being elevated to the level of potential-terrorism in LA. In last month’s memo, Chief Bucks writes, “Demonstrating unusual interest in facilities/buildings, infrastructures or protected sites beyond mere casual or professional (e.g., engineers) interest, such that a reasonable person would consider the activity suspicious.” Examples, he adds, include observations through binoculars, taking notes and attempting to measure distances.
Days after the LAPD memo was made public, Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commanding officer of the LAPD’s counter-terrorism unit, told members of the media, “In this region we have active terrorist plots, in this region, right now,” although authorities have not corroborated those claims with details for the public yet. Chief Downing later told the Times that he was unaware of any specific terrorism plot aimed at targeting the city, but was adamant that law enforcement should be on the ready to handle any reports.
The lengths at which they will go to in an effort to stay ahead of the game has others worried scared, though.
“We ought to be ashamed of ourselves,” National Lawyers Guild attorney Jim Lafferty tells the Times.
In an op-ed published this week in the Huffington Post, Yaman Salahi of the American Civil Liberties Union says the LAPD’s latest memo makes it so that cops can consider “Anyone snapping a photograph or taking notes in a public place [as] a potential threat to public safety.”
“This kind of information sharing might sound good in theory, but a recent study from George Washington University, co-authored by the LAPD’s very own Deputy Chief Michael Downing, the head of the LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, found that suspicious activity reporting has ‘flooded fusion centers, law enforcement, and other security entities with white noise.’ In practice, the profusion of SAR reports ‘complicates the intelligence process and distorts resource allocation and deployment decisions,’” Salahi writes. “The head of LAPD’s own counterterrorism bureau knows that low value SAR reports hurt counterterrorism efforts more than they help. So we should ask the LAPD to take the simple steps necessary to protect our free speech and privacy rights, and to stop harassing people engaged in perfectly lawful – and often, constitutionally protected – activities.”
Because the LAPD is now narrowing their eyes to focus in on suspicious activity at critical infrastructure sites, seemingly normal behavior anywhere — from power plants and theme parks to even a basketball game — can get you in trouble. In 2004, then Mayor Jim Hahn said, “Los Angeles’ critical infrastructure goes beyond power plants and water mains and includes facilities like Staples Center, which generates millions of dollars for our economy and is, thanks to the Lakers, an internationally-known symbol of Los Angeles.”
LA was awarded $3 million that year through the Urban Area Security Initiative Operation Archangel grant to protect its infrastructure, including the Staples Center, Disneyland and Hollywood Boulevard, and began their involvement in the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI) a few years later.
As RT wrote earlier this year as part of their ongoing investigation into the TrapWire surveillance system, the portal on the LAPD’s website that allows for civilians to contribute anonymous SARs is linked with an international intelligence database, as are surveillance cameras across the city. The iWatch reporting program has also been picked up in Washington, DC, where emails perpetrated to have been hacked from the servers of Strategic Forecasting last year suggest that the police department and closed-circuit cameras across the nation’s capital are tied to TrapWire as well. Intelligence collected in those instances are also fed to nationally-run fusion centers.
- LAPD Now Arresting Photographers (poorrichards-blog.blogspot.com)
- Photographers in Los Angeles considered terrorists under official LAPD policy (EndtheLie.com)