As the federal government prepares to expand a program that encourages local police officers to report “suspicious activity” possibly linked to terrorism, criticism is heating up that the effort could lead to unnecessary intelligence gathering and racial profiling.

A similar initiative launched by the Bush Administration after the Sept. 11 attacks sought the public’s help in reporting potential terrorist planning. The Terrorist Information and Prevention System, as authorities called it, was canceled in 2002 amid intense outcry that citizens – in particular utility workers, mail carriers and others with some measure of access to people’s homes – would be made into spies and overreact to conduct that was lawful.

The latest push to collect and share such information among police will overload intelligence systems with junk or “noise” that doesn’t place them in a position to detect threats, a liberal advocacy group argued recently in a study of suspicious activity reporting. The Massachusetts-based organization, called Political Research Associates, points to internal guidelines distributed in 2008 by the Los Angeles Police Department that instruct officers to fill out a suspicious activity report when they observe one or more of 40 different types of behavior.

Many of the categories would strike casual observers as reasonable and should concern law enforcement regardless of whether police are specifically looking for terrorists, such as individuals who attempt to obtain plutonium and anthrax or smuggle contraband through security checkpoints. Others, however, could be widely interpreted by police and possibly abused. Officers are told to target people drawing diagrams, taking photographs or video footage “with no apparent aesthetic value,” taking measurements, or possessing and soliciting weapons and ammunition, as specifically distinguished from explosives, chemical agents or other such materials that would obviously raise eyebrows.

Guns are no doubt dangerous and unnerve many Americans, but they’re also legal to obtain and possess in the United States, and LAPD guidelines don’t elaborate on what types of weapons or ammunition should be noted in suspicious activity reports. Another item on the list is “espousing extremist views” that while also frequently unsettling and even loathsome could be protected by the First Amendment and not fit for addition to an intelligence database shared among law-enforcement agencies.

According to Political Research Associates:

When fully operational, the [suspicious activity reporting] initiative will feed the FBI’s existing National Security Analysis Center, a collection of more than 1.5 billion government and private sector-generated records. The center will use these documents to conduct pattern analyses: searching data sets for certain predictive models or patterns of behavior. This software solution sounds sexy, but its efficacy is dubious. So far, attempts to develop a ‘terrorist profile’ are either so broad that they sweep up vast numbers of ‘false positives’ – innocent individuals or organizations incorrectly flagged as potential threats – or so narrow that they are useless in predicting dangerous or criminal conduct.

Meanwhile, separately, the final report on a suspicious activity pilot project supported by the Justice Department and carried out in several major American cities surfaced on the web recently with little fanfare. Some of its conclusions are being treated by skeptics as evidence that the program will go too far or not aid authorities. A majority of sites where the program was tested, for example, couldn’t determine the number of arrests and investigations that stemmed from suspicious activity reports. The Boston Police Department complained that a “disparate” amount of information was being entered into databases by law-enforcement agencies for sharing purposes, and officials there also worried that large volumes of data would be “dumped” into the system.

An LAPD commander named Joan McNamara, who leads the department’s Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, during 2008 launched the movement for police to better coordinate suspicious activity reporting. She testified on Capitol Hill in March of last year that the department had compiled more than 1,300 suspicious activity reports, but of those just a fraction were forwarded to a local terrorism task force for follow-up and four arrests were made. The number of arrests and investigations, on the other hand, “are almost secondary to a newfound ability to connect events that in the past would have appeared unrelated,” she said.

McNamara also argued that in the years immediately following 9/11, police didn’t necessarily receive the training required to distinguish between behaviors reasonably linked to terrorism and those that were not. The modern suspicious activity initiative, she said, teaches them to be keenly aware of the difference.

My officers, investigators, and analysts have been trained on behaviors and indicators associated with criminal activity. I have put into place clear policies regarding interactions and how they are to be handled and how information about those contacts and calls for service should be handled. It means putting in place privacy and civil liberty protections. It means reminding our officers that it is inappropriate to collect information regarding people engaged in constitutionally protected activities when there is no nexus to criminal activity. Finally, it means holding people accountable when they violate these rights and polices.

Each recorded activity is assigned a multitude of codes based on things like date, time and location, which can then be mapped or poured into graphs to reveal trends across a large geographic area or time period. Political Research Associates adds that the data collection can also include personal information, such as names, addresses, driver’s license numbers, scars and tattoos.

Further, guidelines in Los Angeles tell officers that if they identify activities during their ordinary patrol and investigative work that could be related to terrorism, their suspicions are not to be mentioned in related police reports, auto-impound forms or arrest records. Everyday police reports are typically a public record under open-government laws and available to citizens.

But in this case personnel are directed not to photocopy them, and the original document along with a separate suspicious activity report must be sent to the Major Crimes Division, where the counterterrorism bureau is located. That could mean records describing an untold number of incidents with unclear connections to terrorism are restricted from public access, and watchdogs can’t see how police are performing or what they’re up to.

There is evidence that people have been wrongly singled out for innocent behavior. One man was arrested in late 2008 after taking photographs at New York’s Penn Station for a photo contest organized by Amtrak. And in 2005, police sought $2 million to install video cameras and implement other security measures at the Santa Monica Pier after a citizen recorded three Middle Eastern men videotaping it. Local police treated the activity as evidence of a threat, but no one was arrested and FBI agents dismissed the claim.

Image: Joe Shlabotnik

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, Wired.com, 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.