It’s not every day that Elevated Risk gets to report on a local story. But yours truly works from Austin, Texas, and on May 3 the city’s Public Safety Commission here in the heart of the Lone Star State held a meeting on the area’s police intelligence fusion center. The event at Austin’s City Hall became a microcosm of what we’ve seen nationally: protests that the centers haven’t developed strong enough policies to protect civil liberties and privacy rights.

A small but vocal group of Austin residents, convinced that the centers will give police too much power, shouted at the commissioners as they voted almost unanimously to recommend that the City Council give approval for the facility to move forward. However, there was one holdout vote from a local judge.

More than 70 fusion centers have been constructed around the country with the help of over $250 million from the federal government, largely if not completely from anti-terrorism and preparedness grants. Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies say the centers make it easier to exchange critical information about possible terrorist threats. But the centers have also quickly expanded their missions to include everyday crimes partly to justify the expense of maintaining them.

Civil liberties advocates have increasingly complained that the centers, hoping to detect terrorist planning, will go too far in collecting sensitive personal information like financial records that belong to people who haven’t committed a crime. We additionally wrote last week that the federal government is close to implementing a nationwide program for gathering “suspicious activity reports,” which fusion centers will help collect and analyze.

Public Safety Commissioner Ramey Ko during a line of questioning aimed at an assistant city attorney exposed what appeared to be two weaknesses in the privacy policy Austin is developing to govern its fusion center, which will include representatives from several area law enforcement agencies. The policy would be contained in a larger interlocal agreement that establishes certain rules police departments must comply with if they want to participate in the center. That guiding document, Ko’s questioning revealed, didn’t contain clear legal remedies for citizens if the center were to abuse its power, say, by leaking personal information.

Commissioner Ramey Ko:

Let me pose this question to you as maybe a hypothetical. Let’s say someone working in the [fusion center], some individual employee is discovered to have compromised the privacy of someone resulting in some kind of damages, such as exposing personal health and financial information in a damaging manner. Well, who would that person sue? Would it be just that agency itself, or since the city of Austin and the [Austin Police Department] are really the overseers, recipients of the grants specifically, would we as a city also end up being liable – potentially liable – for at least legal costs if not damages?

Assistant City Attorney Kristy Orr:

I don’t know how to answer that question at this point in time. I’d have to look into it.

Ko also showed that there were not easily understood procedures for citizens to correct information in intelligence databases used by the fusion center if police records wrongly designated someone a criminal or even a terrorist. States like Minnesota, on the other hand, allow citizens to obtain police files on themselves and take action if they’re unfairly portrayed as criminal suspects. We’ve reported on a similar lack of control over national security databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, which are exempt from certain provisions of the Privacy Act.

The revelation surfaced awkwardly amid another exchange between Ko and Orr. See the video posted here for more. Opponents further grumble that Austin’s fusion center privacy policy wasn’t finalized before being sent to the City Council, and instead officials were characterizing it as a “living document” that could be enhanced over time to include stronger oversight provisions.

Texas is all the more noteworthy due to a local magazine last year discovering that another fusion center in the state was disseminating intelligence memos to hundreds of police officials containing far-fetched claims, including that the federal Treasury Department may be attempting to adopt an economic variation of Shariah law in the United States. Reportedly, a former scientist for the defense contractor Raytheon Co. who was involved in data-mining projects there and his wife have been paid more than $1 million in no-bid contracts since 2004 to run that center. The memos caused an uproar when they became public.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.