Suspicious activity reporting requirements spark contention

Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin wanted to restrict when city law enforcement has to report suspicious activity to local intelligence centers regarding criminal and terrorist activities.

At the Feb. 14 Berkeley City Council meeting, Arreguin proposed an amendment to do just that.

Arreguin wanted to alter an agreement between the city and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, or NCRIC, an intelligence headquarters to which information of possible criminal or terrorist activity is submitted.

His proposed amendment called for the city to “limit the submission of Suspicious Activity Reports to only those individuals/groups that have been charged with a crime” while permitting “the submission of Suspicious Activity reports in cases where the Police Department has become aware of criminal acts that have not been linked to a specific individual or group.”

The agreement — which the city approved without Arreguin’s amendment — is one of five contentious mutual aid agreements the council looked at during its February meeting. Mutual aid refers to agreements between Berkeley and other security and law enforcement agencies that provide outside aid when one agency lacks sufficient resources to address a situation.

Two of the five amendments will be reviewed by the city’s police review commission and come back to council in May for further discussion. The remaining three were approved Feb. 14.

“(NCRIC) is probably the most problematic agreement that we have,” Arreguin said. “It enables a very broad investigation and reporting and enables the police department to do intelligence gathering and reporting of people who may not have committed any crimes at all.”

According to Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay Area chapter, the suspicious activity reporting initiative has become more common in the Bay Area in recent years.

“Berkeley doesn’t have as large problems as other cities around country have regarding (suspicious activity reporting),” said George Lippman, chair of the city’s Peace and Justice Commission. “We are mostly trying to prevent these problems from spreading to Berkeley.”

The city has filed two suspicious activity reports to the center in the last two years, according to Lippman.

The first report was sent following a suspect being arrested and charged with stealing license plates. The second report was a case in which people were observing a secure but unnamed facility in the city, which according to Lippman, illuminates the fact that suspicious activity reporting is highly subjective and leads to the interrogation and harassment of innocent citizens.

“As a white person … taking a picture of (a facility), that’s normal — but somebody in a turban that looks like a Muslim could be suspicious,” Lippman said. “Nothing is in writing — (your information) can get into a national database and will never get out again, and even the FBI can interview you.”

But according to George Perezvelez, chair of the city’s Police Review Commission, only a very limited number of Berkeley community members have a problem with the NCRIC agreement, not the city’s population at large.

“There isn’t a public outcry on this — these are the same group of concerned individuals every time who want to protect civil liberties,” Perezvelez said. “This not a citywide concern.”

Suspicious activity reports are submitted through a chain of command by the Berkeley Police Department in which a first level sergeant will review the submitted information and send it to a second lieutenant who determines whether the incident meets the standard of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. If the incident passes these criteria, the information will be submitted to the intelligence center as a suspicious activity, according to Arreguin.

Suspicious activity reporting has been unrolling nationally in the years since 9/11, according to Billoo, who said that Los Angeles was one of the pilot cities where the program was spearheaded by local officials and the police department.

“The national (suspicious activity reporting initiative) has been widely criticized in law enforcement and the civil liberties world as over collecting information and impinging upon First Amendment-protected activities,” said Veena Dubal, a civil rights attorney and UC Berkeley graduate student. “Suspicious activity reports as defined by the federal government include activities that are completely innocuous, like taking pictures — someone who looks like me is more likely to be reported on than someone who looks like the chief of police.”

Anjuli Sastry covers city government.