Transparency Requirements Help San Francisco Activists Shut Down Intrusive Surveillance Program

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Last February, the San Francisco Police Department suspended its participation with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a local/federal partnership that engages in broad-based surveillance in the name of national security. The route activists took to sever this relationship reveals the importance of ensuring local surveillance programs operate with oversight and transparency.

According to the FBI, JTTFs operate in more that 100 cities across the U.S. They “chase down leads, gather evidence, make arrests, provide security for special events, conduct training, collect and share intelligence, and respond to threats and incidents at a moment’s notice.” A big part of these task forces’ work involves investigating people “suspected” of terrorism. The primary reason the SFPD ultimately withdrew from the San Francisco JTTF was due to widespread surveillance based on the flimsiest of standards that goes on during these joint task force investigations.

The effort to extricate the San Francisco P.D. from the JTTF began in 2010 when The Coalition for a Safe San Francisco uncovered a 2007 Memorandum of Understandingbetween the FBI and the SFPD that the police chief signed without public knowledge or legislative review. As Just Security, an organization that analyzes U.S. national security policy, explained, the MOU required local police serving on the task force to operate under significantly looser surveillance standards than allowed by the city.

It mandated that officers assigned to the task force operate under the same set of federal guidelines that govern the FBI. These federal guidelines are significantly looser than the city’s “reasonable suspicion” requirement, which specifies that police officers must have an articulable basis for suspecting criminal activity before they begin an investigation.

In response, activists pushed through the San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance designed to limit local police cooperation with the FBI unless they adhered to the stricter city investigational standards.

The revision lays out three important provisions. First, it eliminates the possibility of secret agreements between the FBI and the SFPD by requiring proposed changes to the MOU be submitted for public comment at a Police Commission meeting. Second, it mandates that all local officers assigned to the task force comply with stronger state and local standards instead of weaker federal guidelines. And finally, it requires the police department to submit an annual report about its work with the FBI.

Although the ordinance didn’t have “teeth” to facilitate its enforcement, activists used it as a springboard, highlighting violations and increasing public awareness. According to the Asian Law Caucus, the existence of the ordinance compelled the SFPD “to disclose more information about its collaboration with the FBI JTTF on an annual basis than any other local police department in the country.” The pressure brought to bear by coalition members actually created “teeth.”

After Trump’s election and his “Muslim ban,” the SFPD pulled the plug on its participation with the JTTF. It demonstrates the effectiveness of local activists aggressively pushing for reforms.

Just Security highlighted the intrusive nature of these JTTF investigations.

The FBI has three different types of investigations it can pursue: assessments, preliminary investigations, and full investigations. Assessments permit physical surveillance, interviews, racial and ethnic mapping, and the use of informants without any factual or criminal predicate. Agents can open assessments as long as they claim they have an “authorized purpose,” like preventing crime or terrorism, but need no evidence to suspect the subject is engaged in wrongdoing. Preliminary investigations only require “information or an allegation,” and a 2010 report by the Justice Department Inspector General found that, in practice, justifications are often speculative. Only full investigations, which allow electronic wiretaps and search warrants, require reasonable suspicion under the FBI guidelines.

The FBI provided data to the New York Times showing that it opened over 82,325 assessments from 2009 to 2011, the first two years it had this authority.

Just Security called the San Francisco Police Department’s withdrawal from the JTTF and example for other cities to follow, emphasizing the importance of holding law enforcement agencies accountable. So many of the agreements underling these “partnerships” happen in secret with no oversight. People have a right to know how police are operating in their communities.

Both the SFPD’s 2012 Ordinance and, to a greater extent, its contract suspension, send an important message to the FBI: Local communities want to be safe from crime and terrorism, but they also want to be protected from unwarranted surveillance, infiltration, and profiling. Requiring law enforcement to have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before opening an investigation will curb abuse and funnel police resources toward suspects rather than law-abiding people. Local law enforcement must be forced to follow local law, and federal investigative guidelines must be raised so all Americans—including law enforcement—can feel secure.


Photo by Peter Merholz via Flickr used under creative commons license.

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