Privacy SOS

Missing the point: PERF and the surveillance industrial complex

Over the weekend, Alternet’s Joshua Holland posted a scathing takedown of Naomi Wolf’s latest writings, in which she accuses the federal government of orchestrating a politically motivated crackdown against the occupy movements. While Holland is right to carefully question Wolf’s evidence and chain of reasoning, he goes too far in the opposite direction when he suggests that one of the organizations involved in the mayors’ communications isn’t worth investigating, is only tangentially related to the federal government, and should even be lauded as ‘progressive’ because it was attacked by Fox News.
 
While it is true that the Police Executive Research Forum isn’t exactly ‘shadowy,’ as Wolf says it is, some of PERF's projects are shadowy, and Holland’s take on PERF is as simplistic and heavy-handed as Wolf’s take on the federal orchestration of the OWS crackdown. Holland is wrong when he minimizes PERF’s significance on the national stage because he’s missing the point about what the organization does, whom it represents, and what it stands for.
 
While Wolf seems to be saying that there’s a secret cabal of high-powered DC types calling the shots for local police departments nationwide, Holland tells us that PERF isn’t so big and bad after all, that it is a “membership organization without any actual police powers.” Holland undercuts the notion that PERF is a big player, and seems to suggest that its DHS affiliation is unremarkable:
It can’t “order” anybody to do anything and has no means to apply “economic pressure.” Its only “affiliation” with DHS is that PERF’s Executive Director, Chuck Wexler, also sits on a DHS “advisory board” (along with a dozen police chiefs, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton).
He goes on to cite a PERF policy position that landed the organization squarely in the sights of right-wing media like Fox News: PERF opposes immigration laws like SB 1070 that force local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Among law enforcement, this is indeed a progressive opinion. But to insinuate that PERF is a progressive organization because of this one position is misleading and dangerous.
 
PERF’s many other activities, foremost its close relationship with the multi-billion dollar, global arms and surveillance titan Lockheed Martin, demonstrate that it is in fact a key player in the very shadowy professionalization of so-called ‘intelligence-led’ policing. The very real danger PERF poses is that it masks the takeover of ‘total information awareness’ surveillance state policing by using the progressive, people-centered language of ‘community policing’. It’s doublespeak at its best.
 
Intelligence-led vs. community-policing
During the 1990s, a powerful movement for community control and oversight of police practices shook the law enforcement world. After decades of failed war on drugs policies that inflicted severe punishments and harsh police crackdowns on poor communities, law enforcement finally began to listen to organizers from those criminalized groups. Policing literature from the 1990s is full of references to ‘community policing’, a theory that prioritizes community-officer engagement, trust and mutual respect as the building blocks necessary to build and maintain safe cities. Indeed, when PERF opposes SB 1070 and like laws, it does so using the language of community policing and it is true to the ideology: local immigrant communities must trust their police departments, or else crimes won’t be reported, making cities more dangerous for everyone. That’s correct and it’s sound public policy.
 
But then September 11, 2001 came and went, and with it went the federal government’s investment in the community-policing paradigm. All of a sudden, the community’s concerns and the importance of building trust among officers and locals became irrelevant; what mattered was getting all of the information possible, to attempt to pre-empt crime, to prevent it from happening.
 
Everyone became suspect, so there was no one in the community left to trust. The new ideology was fully articulated by many in the Bush administration, but not least by ‘Total Information Awareness’ champion and convicted felon John Poindexter. Still, police didn’t have the tools they needed to execute the new mission; the missing key was the technology that would enable police to become like the futuristic crime stoppers in the film Minority Report. With the right tools, the story goes, police from the FBI on down to the local sheriff could prevent crime by predicting it. Intelligence-led, or predictive policing was born.
 
Luckily for companies like Booz Allen and Lockheed Martin, intelligence-led policing requires vast expenditures in surveillance technologies and information sharing architectures. Over the past ten years, the federal government has doled out seemingly unlimited amounts of cash to local cops who want the latest spy and info sharing tech. Since 9/11 hundreds of millions of dollars in DHS funds alone have gone to support this mission, providing funds to create local spy centers (‘fusion centers’), purchase military grade surveillance and weapons, and establish information sharing systems that link local police to federal policing and even military intelligence organizations. 
 
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice hasn’t forgotten about community policing; indeed, it has an entire funding stream called “Community Oriented Policing Services” (COPS). Upon close inspection, however, it becomes clear that instead of investing in programs that actually work towards the goals of that methodology, DOJ has simply been giving its so-called “Community Policing” grants to local cops to buy – you guessed it – surveillance tools. 
 
That’s right: DOJ is now simply calling intelligence-led policing community policing. Maybe it hopes no one will notice? But it’s hard not to notice that community-policing grants are funding major surveillance technology expenditures on the local level. One example among many: Brockton, MA police got nearly $500,000 from DOJ this year via the “Secure Schools” program as part of a community policing funding stream. The money will be largely spent on new surveillance cameras and lighting, and a “state of the art” door lock system capable of putting the school into full prison-style lockdown. . See other examples here.)
 
PERF and Lockheed Martin: asking the right questions to get the right answers
What does PERF have to do with all of this? PERF is a non-profit police professionalism organization, dedicated to shaping and informing the national conversation on policing, and effecting practical change in departments nationwide vis a vis policy recommendations based on its think-tank studies. As demonstrated recently via the coordinated mayors calls, PERF also gives operational assistance to police departments nationwide, in close cooperation with DHS.
 
It is precisely the kind of organization needed in the beltway funding world of metrics and research papers to help to smoothly transition US law enforcement into the Brave New World of intel-led policing. PERF's policy papers and research programs give credibility to the transition from a policing paradigm in which crimes are investigated and criminals prosecuted to a more militaristic paradigm in which “threats” are “assessed” continually; wherein ‘probable cause’ and ‘reasonable suspicion’ are so much old hat; wherein technologies that scour the internet to look for patterns and predict events take the place of corner conversations or cooperation with community groups and religious figures. 
 
Enter PERF’s cooperation with Lockheed Martin. While Joshua Holland of Alternet makes light of PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler’s close working relationship with DHS, he should take note that Wexler and PERF’s relationship with the war and surveillance technology giant Lockheed is enduring and potentially poses serious conflicts of interest to the parties involved. Unsurprisingly, you don't hear about this aspect of PERF's work on Fox News.
 
In 2009, PERF and Lockheed published a paper together on technology in the law enforcement community. Lockheed and PERF surveyed hundreds of local police departments nationwide, asking them about the state of their current technology use, the perceived effectiveness of particular technologies, and finally, asking police chiefs for insight into what kinds of technologies they hope to acquire in the coming years. The survey unsurprisingly pointed these police departments to the existence of numerous technologies that departments don’t possess and to some that don’t even exist yet (i.e. “improved electronic listening devices with, for instance, less detectable body wires, longer life “bugs,” and better long-range audio eavesdropping capability that works through windows.”) 
 
Among their many self-serving conclusions, Lockheed and PERF find that “a high priority [for local departments] is the development and enhancement of integrated data systems, including systems and equipment that provide in-field access for officers….Improving the ability of police to collect and process DNA evidence has great potential for improving criminal investigation….Some evidence suggests that cameras are effective in reducing some forms of crime; they may become even more effective if coupled with emerging biometric technologies for subject identification. Police are also seeking technologically advanced surveillance equipment that has tactical uses, such as “see through the wall” devices for use in hostage situations.”
 
The rest of the report’s conclusions read like a laundry list of things Lockheed should dutifully produce for DHS and DOJ to purchase for local police departments nationwide. Unsurprisingly, Lockheed Martin already makes many of these technologies and sells them to federal and state law enforcement. The list of contracts is much too long to cite here, but among them is the FBI's all important Next Generation Identification biometrics database, which will be built and maintained by Lockheed to the tune of billions of dollars. 
 
Is PERF at the center of a coordinated, anti-OWS crackdown affecting our First Amendment rights nationwide? Maybe, but the evidence surely doesn’t support the conclusion that PERF has played the role Naomi Wolf asserts it has. But is PERF a harmless, even progressive policing think-tank that we shouldn’t be worried about, as Joshua Holland seems to suggest? Hardly. 
 
Both columnists miss the point. PERF might not be at the center of an anti-OWS crackdown (although it may be; we simply don’t have evidence to say so beyond the orchestrated conference calls), but it is certainly in the center circle of organizations that are quietly – in the shadows, even – reformulating and providing ‘research’ to support the reformulation of law enforcement in this country. The shift from domestic, community-based policing to militarized, intelligence-led policing is real and terrifying. And given its work with Lockheed Martin (a company more firmly rooted in the .01% than even Bank of America), PERF should continue to be the subject of journalistic and citizen inquiry. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.