When Secure Communities Meet Border Security

Looking at Michigan’s Fusion Centers

About Eartha Melzer

Detroiters March Without Fear August, 2011 (Photo by Peace Education Center/Flickr)

Detroiters March Without Fear August, 2011 (Photo by Peace Education Center/Flickr)

In the Winter 2009/Spring 2010 edition of The Public Eye, we reported on the rise of Intelligence Fusion Centers, created to coordinate the national security intelligence efforts of the Department of Homeland Security, US Department of Justice, CIA, FBI and the Department of Defense. The initiative was designed to allow officials to collect and share “seemingly unrelated” data about incidents that might – or might not — be precursors of terrorist activity, and if needed, coordinate responses to such attacks.Public Eye’s Thomas Cincotta raised questions about the centers’ potential for racial and ethnic profiling, violations of free speech, and noted their lack of transparency and intrusive power. Amid escalating reports of racial profiling by immigration and border control officials in the Detroit area, and reports of the redirection of Homeland Security funding for local police operations, we asked journalist Eartha Melzer to report on how Michigan’s fusion centers are operating in proximity to the United States’ northern border and one of the largest, oldest and most diverse Arab-American communities in the country.

This past August, a broad coalition of community groups held a “March Without Fear” in Southwest Detroit. Their rally in Clark Park drew 2,000 attendees: unions, including locals of the United Auto Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers and Service Employees International Union; civil liberties groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality; immigrant rights groups and faith-based organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrants Rights. Congressmen John Conyers and Hansen Clarke gave speeches, along with UAW President Bob King and NAACP President Reverend Dr. Wendell Anthony.

The protesters were shining a light on a rise of complaints of racial profiling by the Border Patrol acting in Detroit’s neighborhoods and by the Office of Field Operations charged with immigration at the Detroit/Windsor border.

At the same time, they were drawing a connection between what they saw as the uptick in harassment of local Arabs and Latinos and the “information gathering” practices of the state’s secretive fusion centers. Calling for a redirection of funding from ineffective, abusive enforcement programs into job-creation, education, and blight elimination,1 the protestors demanded community oversight of federal funds.

The previous spring, the U.S. government had opened such a fusion center in Harrison Township near Lake St. Clair. The $30 million Coast Guard and Border Patrol Operational Integration Center (OIC) is located at Michigan’s Selfridge Air National Guard Base at the Canadian border. The Selfridge OIC has a binational staff: officers from the U.S. and Canadian Border Patrol, members of the U.S. Office of Field Operations and Office of Air and Marine, U.S. Coast Guard and Michigan State Police, and officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ontario Provincial Police.

When it opened in May, the facility promised to provide, “a centralized location for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) …to gather, analyze and disseminate operational and strategic data in the Great Lakes region of the Northern border for use by frontline agents and officers.”2 The concerns of Homeland Security were centered on recognition that Detroit is the busiest trade crossing on the U.S.-Canadian border. Detroit is also home to the region’s water infrastructure and a major oil refinery.

At the time, the Dept. of Homeland Security asserted that the limited amount of law enforcement at the Canadian border, coupled with active trade and traffic, makes the terrorist threat on the northern border greater than that faced on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Barriers to information sharing between customs enforcement and border control personnel, a later report would note, could be a weak link in northern border security.

In 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan D. Bersin referred to the OIC as a “demonstration project.”3 He described the complex technology and techniques being deployed for information sharing. The OIC brings together information feeds, including radar and camera feeds, blue force tracking, database query from databases not previously available to CBP, remote sensor inputs, RVSS [Remote Video Surveillance Systems] and MSS [Mobile Surveillance System] feeds, and video from various POEs [Points of Entry] and tunnels. Additional information feeds such as local traffic cameras and MSS will be added in the near future. “This level of personnel and technology integration may serve a model forcollaboration and technology deployments in other areas of the northern border.”4

The Selfridge IOC site houses the control room for an elaborate, eleven-camera system that can transmit live video from locations across the Detroit metropolitan area. According to Sentrillion Corp, which installed the system, the video system provides long range (18 Km) video surveillance day and night in all weather environments, and also has an optional on-the-ground radar function. The new video surveillance system can observe activities four miles in from the border, including most of the city of Detroit. Most residents of the region are unaware that those watching the video feed also will have access to state/local databases and traffic cameras. The nearby St. Clair Shores Police Dept. reports that the OIC is helping to monitor the movements of the boats in the city marina and allows the department to use OIC databases to track movement of people and boats, including low lying “submarine” boats that are difficult to detect.

The Road to the Border

How did Michigan and the city of Detroit, a state and city in desperate financial straits, come to make such a large investment in such an intelligence gathering infrastructure?

In 2006, a group calling itself the Southeast Michigan Urban Area Security Initiative was formed to receive homeland security funding which had been earmarked for the area through the federal Urban Area Security Initiative. The group included representatives from the City of Detroit and the Counties of Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne.

Then-Governor Jennifer Granholm established The Michigan Intelligence Operations Center (MIOC) by executive order on December 20, 2007. MIOC’s mission was to “collect, evaluate, collate, and analyze information and intelligence and then, as appropriate, disseminate this information and intelligence to the proper public safety agencies so that any threat of terrorism or criminal activity will be successfully identified and addressed.”5,6 The MIOC was built in East Lansing and has been awarded $8.5 million in federal grants since 2006.7

Much of this funding has gone into the creation of complex database systems that can store data, including biometric information, and generate local and regional maps. Asked about how the existence of such a database system could help protect public safety, Dale Peet, former Commander of the MIOC, shared an anecdote

There was a threat, it was out of Flint or Genesee county high school, in which a student had posted on a blog or a web page on the Friday that on a Monday he was going to enter the school and kill a lot of people. The fusion center obtained that information, […] tracked the residence where it was [uploaded], and local authorities obtained a search warrant.

MIOC has a privacy policy that specifies that records be kept that show what information has been accessed, by whom and for what purpose. However, it is unclear how well it is following that policy or who is monitoring its performance. Daniel Levy, chief legal officer for the Michigan Dept. of Civil Rights, is a member of the MIOC advisory board, which typically meets every other month. He said that the center itself is responsible for ensuring that the privacy policy is followed.

That said, it remains unclear what information is being gathered by Michigan’s fusion centers, and who has access to that information. Terrence L. Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association and a retired county sheriff said that MIOC was like “Google for police” and expressed his belief that anyone who enters data in the system can also run searches. Jungel said that the MIOC database is a “tremendous tool” that can help law enforcement officers see patterns. “Investigating is good,” he said. “We investigate to clear and exonerate as much as anything.” Beat cops, he said, should know the data and surveillance tools available to them through MIOC.

High resolution surveillance at the Operational Integration Center (OIC) on Selfridge Air National Guard Base (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr)

High resolution surveillance at the Operational Integration
Center (OIC) on Selfridge Air National Guard Base (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr)

There are also questions about the required level of clearance for users. In a Feb. 2011 article for Homeland Security Today magazine, titled “Building a Better, More Effective Fusion Center” Dale Peet said that one of his greatest accomplishments as commander of MIOC was creating a system for interns to do data entry into the system, thereby sparing officers for more important jobs.

The MIOC in East Lansing shares information with the Selfridge OIC. Kapp was eager to emphasize that intelligence fusion could improve public safety services in an era of diminishing resources. There is little doubt that Michigan’s two fusion centers have been subject to “mission creep” – allocating monies originally earmarked for “terrorism prevention” to a broader public safety agenda. A recent CBS news analysis found that the ongoing recession has forced Michigan to cut more police officers than any other state.8 Recent FBI statistics indicate that the state now has four of the nation’s ten most dangerous cities.

Is Fusion Center Data Being Used By ICE and for Racial Profiling?

Dale Peet, the former MIOC Commander, dismissed the idea that the MIOC database could be used to unfairly target people based on race, national origin, or visa status. As of October 2010, when he retired, he said, MIOC did not collect border patrol information. He asserted that neither Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) nor Canadian Border Patrol (CBP) had access to the system. However, this assertion was contradicted by his successor, Gene Kapp. Canadian border patrol does have access to MIOC information, he said, and always did.  Kapp went on to explain that ICE can make a request of MIOC, but “visa status is not information that we retain or get involved in.”

The retired sheriff and Michigan Sheriff’s Association director Terrence Jungel dismissed the idea that, for instance, crossing to Canada while wearing a headscarf would be enough to trigger suspicion. “Profiling has a bad rap,” he said. “We bend over backward to avoid profiling. We go where the facts lead.”

Immigrants and their advocates in the Detroit community disagree with these types of official statements. Lena Masri, staff attorney for the Michigan chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said that she is receiving an average of four reports each week from people who say they were abused at the border. Muslims, she said, have been stopped and detained at the border for several years, but recently the types of mistreatment being alleged have become much more severe.  She says,

People are being handcuffed. Their cars are being surrounded by armed agents. The men are taken inside and detained in a cell for several hours, up to 12 hours at a time. There are questions that pertain to religion, where they pray, whether they have received terrorism training.

CAIR MI has filed complaints about the treatment with the Dept. of Homeland Security and the Dept. of Justice.

Immigrant rights advocates report increasing use of joint task forces and ICE enforcement actions that involve Detroit police and the Wayne County Sheriff’s department, and they say that authorities intentionally mislead people about which agency they represent. Hispanic Bar Association president Lawrence Garcia said that Southwest Detroit’s large minority population makes it a hunting ground for immigration enforcement activities and racial profiling. “Whenever ICE needs to show some resolve,” he said, “rounding up people in Southwest Detroit is just too convenient of a way to do that.”

One event that especially outraged locals was a situation in which ICE agents conducted an enforcement action at a local elementary school called Hope of Detroit Academy in March, 2011. According to Alliance for Immigrants Rights and Reform Michigan director Ryan Bates, Jose Maldonado Plasencia had just dropped off his child at the school when ICE agents detained him without having obtained prior authorization for performing enforcement at a school. Later that morning, agents in SUVs and sedans with tinted windows followed two other families from their homes to the school. After the families took refuge in the school, they surrounded the building. When Bates intervened and asked whether the agents had a warrant, the agents acknowledged that they did not and, left in a convoy. Weeks after the incident, school attendance remained low because parents were afraid to bring their children to school. Five months later, the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility released a report on the investigation into these incidents that found that officers did not engage in any abuse or professional misconduct.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) said his office is reviewing ICE’s investigation of the Hope of Detroit incident. “Allegations of warrantless searches, racial profiling, and unlawful detentions must be taken seriously,” he said. “I have some concerns about the thoroughness of ICE’s review.”

 

Sidebars

Michigan Intelligence Operations Center (MIOC) Partners

Michigan Operational Integration Center’s (MOIC) Response to Environmental Threat

Endnotes

1 Statement from organizer Bart Kumor, Aug. 19, 2011.

2 April 24, 2001 CBP announcement, http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/archives/april_2011/

04242011.xml.

3 05/17/2011 Testimony of Alan D. Bersin, Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Before the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Regarding Northern Border Security http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/congressional_test/bersin_testifies.xml.

4 Ibid.

5 Mission statement provided by Michigan State Police.

6 http://www.michigan.gov/mioc.

7 Interview with MIOC Commander Gene Kapp, Sept. 12, 2001.

http://www.hstoday.us/blogs/best-practices/blog/building-a-better-more-effectivefusioncenter/6ae6cd36764f17ba8a19d94fd8c01813.html.

Eartha Melzer’s journalism on politics, civil rights and the environment has been featured on CNN, the Rachel Maddow show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, the Thom Hartmann show, and in print outlets around the world. She is based in Traverse City, Michigan.