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Morrison wary of adding private institutions to Intelligence Center

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 by Michael Kanin

A proposal to include a handful of new police organizations as members of the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, called the ARIC, raised a red flag for Council Member Laura Morrison Tuesday.

 

Morrison didn’t appear to have an objection to the inclusion of the Austin Community College, Texas State University, the City of Cedar Park, Pflugerville ISD, the City of Kyle andthe City of Buda through their respective police departments. Instead, she worried about a provision included in the new deals – but not singled out in posting language – that would extend potential future ARIC inclusion to private entities.

 

“The reason it raised a flag for me is that, if you read the backup (documents), you’ll see that… (the amendment also) add(s) a new capability to add non-governmental entities as partner equivalents,” Morrison said. “Number one, I had a little issue with the fact that it wasn’t posted for that but I spoke with legal and they advised that (the item) did satisfy our posting requirements – although from my perspective, and I think, perhaps shared, we could have done a better job of posting this.”

 

She continued: “I wanted to pull this to raise awareness, and it has raised some questions for me.” These included what sort of private entities ARIC hand in mind as new partners.

 

Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay told Morrison that language in state law narrowly limits private inclusion in the ARIC to private universities. Assistant City Attorney Carey Grace echoed that sentiment.

 

To that, Gay added that Council members would have to approve any new additions to the ARIC – a fact that appears to leave the final OK up to Council members.

 

Grace’s statement seemed to alleviate some of Morrison’s concerns. However, when pressed about the inclusion of for-profit universities, Grace noted that language in state law is less clear. “This provision that is in the education code actually doesn’t quite make that distinction; it refers to peace officers of private institutions, so it’s private educational institutions no matter how they are organized,” she said.

 

However, Grace noted that the two facilities that appeared to be the target of ARIC interest are Concordia University and St. Edwards University.

 

ARIC is one of what have become known nationally as fusion centers. It was established, according to the Austin Police Department’s website, to “maximize the ability to detect, prevent, apprehend, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.”

 

It does so via sharing of gathered intelligence between partner organizations.

 

The facility was established in 2010, amid objections from civil libertarians who worried ARIC would, instead, infringe on the privacy of the residents of Central Texas. ARIC officials established a privacy advisory body to, in part, address those concerns. Members of that group were only recently been appointed.

 

Broader, national concerns have also been raised about fusion centers. In October 2012, a deeply critical U.S. congressional report offered what The New York Times called a “scathing” look at “problems in regional intelligence-gathering offices known as “fusion centers” that are financed by the Department of Homeland Security and created jointly with state and local law enforcement agencies.”

 

The Times article noted that “the report found that the centers ‘forwarded intelligence of uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.’”

 

ARIC officials maintain that their facility offers somewhat singular protections for Central Texas residents.

 

If approved, the ARIC expansion would mark the first time new partners have been added to the operation. Gay noted that the additions of Concordia and St. Edwards could take as long as 12 months.

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