Austin City Council Meeting 8/6/2009 Item #9: Austin Regional Intelligence Center
Fancy Fairchild addresses the council
Fusion Centers Draw Outcry from Local Residents
The Daily Texan
Friday, August 7, 2009
John Bush stood before city council Thursday morning, his face half-hidden behind a red plastic mask.
Youll have to excuse the mask, he said, taking his place at the podium. The whole idea of these fusion centers has me a little paranoid.
Bush was one of several Austin residents — some of whoms faces were also concealed behind colored plastic — speaking out against the creation of a new Austin fusion center, a place where the police department will collect and monitor information on criminal activity.
But the residents were concerned the center will have its eye on more than just criminal activity.
Fusion centers, which began popping up across the U.S. with the purpose of preventing terrorism in a post-9/11 America, started as a joint effort between Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to coordinate intelligence between federal agencies and local police forces.
The Austin City Council approved a resolution for the use of Homeland Security grants to turn an existing Department of Public Safety building into the new Austin Regional Intelligence Center.
The issue will be brought before Austin residents and council again before the fusion center begins operation. The cost of transformation of the building was capped at $200,000.
Laura Martin, an American Civil Liberties Union of Texas policy analyst, said already-existing fusion centers across the nation have tracked information beyond just criminal activity.
The ACLU of Texas believes these fusion centers undermine our basic right to privacy, Martin said. They were initially focused on terrorism, but have grown to include not only arrest information, but also credit reports, library records, bank statements and travel records.
She said the fusion centers not only invade privacy, but are also ineffective when trying to solve crimes because of the sheer volume of intelligence they hold.
With so much info on ordinary folks, this creates a needle in a haystack scenario, she said. They undermine democracy by chilling free speech.
Jim Stetsman, a local business owner, said the police department does not need to know private information.
What do you want my Randalls card for? Why do you need to know how much beer I drink? he said. This is a camels nose under the tent.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said the center will only be used to solve crime, not to monitor residents.
It will only have predicated information that the agencies already have access to, Acevedo said. The only difference is, at a local level, there will be an automated process where we can connect the dots.
He said APD is aware of the problems that have developed at other fusion centers.
We are well aware of the mistakes of the other fusions centers, Acevedo said. I share these concerns. Its kind of like an older brother — we learn form his mistakes. Well, those older fusions centers, were going to learn from theirs.
Before council passed the resolution, councilwoman Laura Morrison, who originally proposed the resolution, withdrew her motion and asked to postpone the vote until the matter could be discussed with the community.
I think that what the comments have made clear is that we, as a community, have not finished this conversation, Morrison said. There needs to be a broad and inclusive conversation.
The resolution to fund the building passed shortly afterward, with a stipulation that the police department takes measures to ensure the fusion center will have community approval.
I want to vet it out to the public and these folks before we even bring it to [council], Acevedo said. The bottom line is, we cannot go operational until you feel comfortable.