A. Garcia / SFVS

Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network says he's been under surveillance for his work against gentrification.

Watch out for Big Brother.

That was the sentiment at the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, as activists and others gathered at Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar to denounce programs they say law enforcement agencies use target primarily poor communities and minorities, and which violate people’s rights.

The Los Angeles Human Relations Commission held a public meeting on Saturday, March 19, discussing allegations of police spying, something Coalition officials said have been going on for several years.

For several hours, dozens of people offered testimony and, at times, admonished and confronted Francisco Ortega, a Commission senior policy advisor, when he questioned their statements.

After receiving the testimonies,  the  Human Relations Commission will write a report and offer recommendations to city authorities.

The SAR Program

At the heart of the Coalition’s distrust is the Los Angeles Police Department’s “Suspicious Activity Reports” (SAR) program. It allows officers to take reports of people doing even mundane actions such as photography, videography, use of binoculars, drawing, and note taking when there is no demonstrated link to criminal activity. The police can then to share this information with various federal government agencies.

The program operates in most major US cities as part of the federal  “iWATCH Army — “See Something, Say Something” anti-terrorism awareness campaign.

Peter White, a member of the activist, anti-poverty organization Los Angeles Community Action Network, swears he’s been a SAR target.

“Our efforts have been under surveillance,” he said, claiming police officers have developed reports on their members for simply taking photographs and protesting against gentrification.

The worst part, White said, is finding proof because of the “secretive nature” of this program.

“People don’t even know they’re going into these files,” White said.

“It’s criminalizing legal behavior, and creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion,” added Hamid Khan, a member of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.

How does the SAR program work?

Besides officers redacting their own reports, the general public can anonymously provide information by completing an online form that asks them to describe things they see and to identify the suspect if possible.

A January 2015 audit by the LAPD Office of the Inspector General revealed that 215 SARs were filed over 12 months, ending in June 2014. Of those reports, 175 were filed by the public, and the remaining 40 initiated by police officers.

After a review, LAPD officials decided that 54 reports were unfounded. The remaining 161 were forwarded to regional intelligence analysis for further review.

The inspector general concluded in his audit that the department handled nearly all of the cases appropriately. Six of the reports that the department deemed legitimate should have been thrown out, he said.

Followup Investigations

The reports were then delivered to the LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, where officers conducted follow-up investigations to assess the possibility of an actual threat.

If they conclude there is merit to the report, the information is sent to a regional intelligence analysis center, also known as a “fusion center,” for further vetting and — if necessary — more investigation by federal authorities.

A Public Records Act file obtained by the Coalition revealed that 4,325 SARs were filed from March 2008 to July 2012, and 3,001 of them were sent to the Fusion Center. But 80 percent of those reports were considered unfounded.

Coalition officials contend that people may have written files about them shared among local and federal agencies for one to five years without them even knowing it, because “sometimes there is no interaction with officers,” said Mariela Saba, a group member. “These reports are secret.”

There is little to no information on what law enforcement agencies do with the files, or the people named in them.

“There are cases that were opened as a result of the suspicious activity reporting,” LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Downing, who heads the counterterrorism bureau, told the Police Commission last year. “But that’s all I can say about that.”

He went on to say that, at the time, photographing a sensitive building would not alone prompt a report. Detectives would follow up to determine if there was any evidence of a possible link to a planned attack.

“I think it has to be clearly articulated as to why the photography has a nexus to terrorism,” Downing told the Police Commission. “It’s the targeting of security personnel, the targeting of security cameras, or places of mass gatherings.”

After 9/11, however, police need citizens to remain vigilant and that the threat of terrorism is real, Downing said.

Restraining Orders Against Gangs “Ineffective”

Another police tool criticized by activists were gang injunctions, a court-issued restraining order prohibiting gang members from participating in certain activities, such as gathering in public.

Since 1982, there are more than 40 injunctions in the City of Los Angeles against 82 gangs.

Both Alex Alonso, professor at California State University Long Beach, and Dr. Ana Muñiz of the University of California, Irvine, told those gathered at the meeting that gang injunctions are “an ineffective means” of reducing crime in the areas they covered and often end up doing more harm than good.

“They create criminal records for people who don’t have them because they usually target associates who are not gang members,” Alonso said.

“They allow officers to have access to our youth without the [benefit] of legal trouble. They can stop you and search you without probable cause,” he added.

For her part, Muñiz said studies show there is only “a 10 percent” reduction in crime over the next six months after a gang injunction is implemented in a neighborhood.

The Los Angeles City Council recently ended a five-year court battle by approving a settlement under which nonprofits will receive $30 million over the next five years to offer job training, as well as vocational and apprenticeship programs, to help those people who were subjected to gang injunctions find employment.

“This settlement creates an innovative pathway for individuals … to gain the job skills they need to turn their lives around,” said Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer.