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New Report: Police Intelligence Gathering Lacks Standards, Threatens National Security and Civil Liberties

The lack of consistency and oversight in intelligence-led policing directs resources away from traditional police work, violates individual liberties, and causes important counterterrorism information to fall through the cracks.

December 10, 2013

New York, NY – Gaps in local-federal intelligence sharing systems jeopardize national security investigations and threaten Americans’ civil liberties, according to a new Brennan Center report.

National Security and Local Police, the most comprehensive survey of counterterrorism policing since 9/11, finds that police are operating without adequate standards and oversight mechanisms, routinely amassing mountains of data – including personal information about law-abiding Americans – with little or no counterterrorism value.

The Brennan Center’s findings are based on dozens of freedom of information requests, in addition to surveys and interviews with police departments, Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and data sharing centers nationwide.

The Brennan Center’s new report shows how the lack of consistency and oversight in local counterterrorism programs directs resources away from traditional police work, violates individual liberties, undermines community-police relations, and causes important counterterrorism information to fall through the cracks. The Boston Marathon bombing exemplifies how critical information can get lost in a din of irrelevant data.

Read the full report here. See the executive summary and new infographic.

“We have begun to grasp the scope of surveillance activities by federal intelligence agencies, but the role of state and local police departments has been largely overlooked. Each department operates according to its own rules and generally without sufficient oversight,” said Michael Price, counsel in the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center and author of the report. “Adopting clear, consistent procedures and improving oversight of local police departments are critical to ensuring effective, fair, and accountable intelligence networks.”

The September 11th attacks ushered in a dramatic expansion of intelligence gathering by local law enforcement officers. Federal grants have subsidized a national network of special intelligence and counterterrorism units, including Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), to investigate terrorism cases and data “fusion centers” to enable better coordination across agencies. These intersecting intelligence networks, however, lack clear guidelines for managing data collection and dissemination.

The result, according to the Brennan Center’s analysis, is organized chaos: a federally subsidized, loosely coordinated information sharing network with data collected according to varying local standards and with insufficient quality control, accountability, or oversight. In the past, police departments shared intelligence information when there was a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. But documents obtained by the Brennan Center show that police today have relaxed their standards and differ significantly on what counts as “suspicious activity.” There is now so much irrelevant data that the FBI does not even investigate 95 percent of the reports shared by local police departments.

To address these major concerns, the Brennan Center recommends that state and local law enforcement and the federal government:

  • Adopt stronger, transparent standards. State and local governments should require police to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before collecting, maintaining, or disseminating personal information for intelligence purposes. The same requirement should apply to data shared on federal networks and databases. 
  • Expand oversight of local police departments, fusion centers, and JTTFs. State and local intelligence activities require greater supervision and oversight. Elected officials should consider establishing an independent police monitor, such as an inspector general. Fusion centers should be subject to regular, independent audits as a condition of future federal funding.

Read the full report here.