Privacy SOS

In the emerging national security surveillance state, clear lines of authority and the division of labor that once defined relations among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have been blurred and sometimes abandoned altogether.

Today, the emphasis is on sharing information and forming partnerships. In the process, the notion of “local law enforcement” under community control is becoming an anachronism. The relationships of trust that traditionally defined effective “community policing” cannot be built with local police who increasingly have a separate agenda with no way for the community to exercise effective oversight.

Local police are now often tied to the FBI through their participation in Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) which are described on the FBI website as “the nation’s frontline on terrorism.” Local officers, state police, campus police, transit police, the FBI, CIA, ICE, the Transportation Security Administration, military police and many other federal agencies are assigned to the JTTFs to conduct investigations and make arrests. 

When local police are assigned to the JTTF, they become federal officers and are no longer under the supervision of and accountable to their local departments. They are no longer really “local.” They work with an agency (the FBI) whose 2008 guidelines permit them to use religion or ethnicity as a factor in deciding what people to interview and to infiltrate organizations and religious groups when opening “assessments.” Because local officers assigned to the JTTF are federalized, making a false statement to them becomes a federal crime.

Local police cross jurisdictional boundaries in other ways. They feed information and “suspicious activity reports” (SARs) to fusion centers, which are the hubs of a new national intelligence network. Once SARs reports are filed by local police, they enter a national information sharing network for law enforcement and intelligence agencies where there is no real accountability or meaningful local control. Local police departments may be involved in investigations and arrests of suspects, but the prosecutions in these cases are invariably brought by federal authorities. 

Increasingly, police departments are responding to the flow of counter-terrorism funding from the federal government. As a consequence, something new is being born: a concept of policing that is no longer primarily reactive and focused on solving crimes that have been committed, or in collecting concrete evidence that a crime may be about to be committed. Instead, local police gather intelligence on all kinds of potential threats.  Leaving the streets behind, they sit behind computer consoles to practice “predictive policing” – using technological tools to enter data and probe huge data banks in the search for “pre-crime.”

Federal funds have been reduced for traditional criminal justice programs, and supporting cops on the beat. But the Department of Homeland Security continues to pour funding into mobile data terminals and other equipment, sophisticated video systems and training programs for bomb detection and containment. 

A number of police chiefs and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)  have questioned federal funding priorities and wondered whether the emphasis on terrorism at the expense of hiring more officers to fight crime has enhanced either national security or the safety of communities.  

In 2008, the IACP reported that since 9/11, 99,000 people had been murdered in the USA and 1.4 million are the victims of violent crime each year, and that “in terms of day-to-day crime fighting, we're far worse off than we were before 9/11.”  During the same year, the US Conference of Mayors also criticized the spending focus on terrorism, pointing out that since 2001 spending on local policing has been cut 81% while an average of 34 people are gunned down every day.

For more information about the new world of policing check out this link.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.