Sunday, August 16, 2009

Police, Sheriffs Establishing Regional Intelligence Center

Centers nationally have been target of complaints by civil libertarians.

By Tony Plohetski
Sunday, August 16, 2009

For months, detectives from two law enforcement agencies had been on the trail of the culprits in a series of home burglaries in Southeast Austin and southern Travis County. Neither group knew the other had similar unsolved cases.

They say they got a lucky break last week. While responding to separate burglary calls within minutes of each other Monday, Austin police officers and Travis County sheriff's deputies realized they were looking for the same thieves.

They soon found and charged three people, and they say they hope the arrests will help close other unsolved cases.

"It was just happenstance," Austin police Detective John Hardage said. "We should have been sharing information months ago."

Authorities say the case — and dozens like it — highlights the need for agencies in Central Texas to routinely exchange data about crimes, trends and suspect descriptions, an information flow they think will help solve more cases and decrease duplicate policing.

Beginning next year, they plan to start doing so at a federally funded, multimillion-dollar intelligence center — one of dozens of such "fusion centers" across the nation.

But some centers have sparked controversy after critics said officials overstepped their bounds and violated people's civil rights.

As part of the information exchange, the Austin Regional Intelligence Center will give investigators broader access to confidential information about suspects or criminal organizations.

For instance, officers now can troll national and state databases to see whether a suspect has been convicted of crimes or has outstanding warrants. The center will also allow investigators to access reports from neighboring departments that show any involvement suspects may have had with police there, including investigations into crimes they may not have been charged with.

Investigators at the center also will be able to access certain databases created by other agencies, such as those documenting suspected gang members and drug traffickers.

Officials currently don't have immediate access to such information from neighboring agencies but can seek it as part of an investigation, a process that detectives said can take days and stall their work. Too often, they said, they may not know when to turn to neighboring towns or counties to further their investigations.

David Carter, an Austin assistant police chief in charge of the intelligence center project, said analysts stationed at the facility also will stitch together information collected by various agencies to create new files on suspects in criminal cases or on suspects they think may be planning to carry out crimes and merit further surveillance.

"Law enforcement has been behind the curve in terms of our ability to exchange information," Carter said. "I think we also have been behind the curve when it comes to analysis and understanding. If there is something going on in this region, we need to understand it and get on top of it."

Civil liberties at risk?

To some civil rights advocates, the new effort to nab criminals has raised questions about the volume of information investigators will have at their fingertips, how they will use it and the types of files they will create.

Although Carter said center workers will abide by state and federal intelligence-gathering laws, incidents at other centers nationally have raised doubts for some.

"We do recognize that there are concerns in some people's minds concerning fusion centers in general," Carter said.

Earlier this year, for instance, an intelligence center in Collin County, north of Dallas, issued a bulletin that said, "It is imperative for law enforcement officers to report" activities of Muslim civil rights organizations and anti-war protest groups in their areas.

Among other things, federal laws bar law enforcement agencies from creating databases concerning political, religious or social views, but civil liberties groups have cited similar incidents in recent years at other intelligence centers, including those in Maryland and Missouri.

Laura Martin, a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said organization leaders hope to meet soon with Austin police and other officials to more specifically discuss their worries.

Intelligence centers nationally have been "a huge priority for the ACLU," Martin said. "We have a lot of concerns."

In a 2007 report on the centers, the ACLU called on agencies to use the "utmost care" in the collection of personal data.

"Clearly not all fusion centers are engaging in improper intelligence activities and not all fusion center operations raise civil liberties or privacy concerns," the report said. "But some do."

Born of 9/11

The first intelligence centers were created soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Jack Thomas Tomarchio, former deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis operations at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said law enforcement agencies in several regions wanted to work more closely to monitor the possibility of more attacks.

Agencies around Los Angeles, Boston and New York were among the first to create intelligence centers, Tomarchio said. Federal officials have since made millions of dollars available to local officials to establish such centers, which total about 70 nationwide.

In Texas, the Dallas and Houston police departments operate their own intelligence centers. The North Central Texas Fusion Center, which opened in 2006, serves 16 counties, including Dallas and Tarrant. San Antonio also is working to establish a center.

Among its other criticisms, the ACLU contends that the centers have produced little solid evidence that they are helping solve crimes or thwarting terrorist activity.

Tomarchio agreed that few, if any, studies have generated statistics or other data about the centers' successes.

"These things are brand new," he said. "They haven't been around 20 years, and even the ones that have been around three or four years are still in their formative years. In many cases, they don't have a track record."

Support, opposition

Austin police officials and other Central Texas law enforcement representatives began last year trying to get money to create an intelligence center.

The city received a $1.8 million grant in 2008 for the center and got a $2.7 million grant this year.

Carter said most of the money will be used to buy computer equipment and to pay crime analysts from different agencies who will be stationed there. Officials have not yet established an annual operating cost.

The Austin and Round Rock police departments and the sheriff's offices in Travis, Williamson and Hays counties are the primary agencies involved in the project and will staff its operation with about eight to 10 crime analysts and detectives, some of whom will be hired using grant money. Carter said that if grant money runs out, departments probably would begin covering the salaries of the analysts.

Smaller agencies in the region will also have access to the center.

Opposition to the center surfaced at a recent Austin City Council meeting, when the council approved using $200,000 in grant money to renovate a Texas Department of Public Safety building in North Austin for the center.

Police officials said at the meeting that an agreement between agencies on privacy matters would probably be drafted next month with input from the ACLU and others. They also said there will be at least one public hearing before the council votes on the agreement.

John Bush, executive director for Texans for Accountable Government, said he wants to make sure officials seek public input on employee training, among other matters.

"There are definite benefits, without a doubt," Bush said. "They are going to be able to more efficiently solve crime."

But, he added, "I also see the potential for abuse."

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