New Jersey fusion center.

New Jersey's laws meant to ensure that state agencies can be held accountable to the public are failing. It is thus long overdue for the New Jersey legislature to engage in robust oversight of the state’s fusion center.

(Photo: via Brookings Institute)

What Business Do Former CIA Agents Have in Domestic Law Enforcement?

Behind all the law enforcement mumbo-jumbo is a commitment to racist broken-windows policing.

This exercise of fitting a square into a circular peg is precisely what now guides New Jersey’s contemporary policing regime. The Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC), the only Department of Homeland Security-affiliated fusion center within the Garden State is led by a former CIA agent trained in international espionage, not state and municipal law enforcement tactics that must adhere to constitutional rights. As New Jersey's experience makes clear, the way fusion centers operate render them rife for abuse, and offer outdated models of policing.

The Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights’ (CSRR) recent report Shining a Light on New Jersey’s Secret Intelligence System shows how the ROIC wastes limited state resources doubling down on “broken windows policing” – a method consistently rebuked by legal and criminal justice scholars as a tool of mass incarceration. Broken windows models emphasize aggressive enforcement of misdemeanor and non-violent “quality of life” offenses. ROIC intelligence gathering focuses on these methods, as the example of the City of Camden attests. There, ROIC intelligence has given rise to open season on privacy and petty offenses, with police issuing fines for offenses like riding a bicycle without a bell. Invariably, such tactics overwhelmingly target minority communities. Rather than fight terrorism, ROIC intelligence furthers the overreach of the carceral state with little benefit.

This misalignment of input and outcome is not innocuous, but by design. The architecture of the ROIC is not vested in proven or progressive policing, but by the methods native to global spy networks. Indeed, the last two directors of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, the body overseeing the ROIC, are former CIA agents.

Over the past six months, CSRR has sought accountability for the ROIC’s overreach, by filing several dozen Open Records Act (OPRA) requests into the ROIC’s relationship with county and state law enforcement agencies. Regrettably, those requests were almost summarily stonewalled, allowing the ROIC and its partners to operate in an accountability-free zone.

Shining a Light on New Jersey’s Secret Intelligence System exposes the extent of secrecy shrouding the ROIC and expansively documents those efforts. The report highlights the lack of transparency, the legal regimes that allow agencies to push back against basic public information requests, and the general apparatus that promotes this wall of secrecy.

Like with so many fusion centers across the country, the ROIC is engaging in mission creep far from its original purpose of fighting terrorism by over-policing non-violent crimes and justifying its budget behind closed-off series of feedback loops.

Open-source research shows the ROIC operating in ways banal and embarrassing – and less than strictly observant of civil liberties and civil rights. But even the most basic questions surrounding the ROIC’s budget and role in local and state information-sharing and structure are routinely ignored by various local, state, and county law enforcement agencies.

Responses from law enforcement to basic questions we posed could have provided an opportunity for public discourse on ROIC’s role, policies, and costs. Instead, CSRR received opaque responses, Kafkaesque riddles, and flimsy legal arguments. New Jersey's law enforcement agencies collectively flouted transparency duties under state open records law with only one law enforcement agency providing one substantive response to exactly one request.

The litany of unpersuasive rejections may have varied in form but the results were the same: obstructive and non-transparent. In one combination of denials, agencies would offer to provide some requested information for an exorbitant sum of money while denying the rest.

The underlying theme put forth was an adherence to a regime of secrecy to protect law enforcement’s long-standing preference of substantially operating in the dark. Law enforcement agencies’ lawyers, across the state, using substantially similar language from various jurisdictions, rely on understandings of case law that, divorced of all the typical chicanery, allows the government to deny a request because the person or group making the request has asked for: (1) something that is too specific; and/or (2) not specific enough.

The irony, of course, is that the purpose of an OPRA request is to shine light into hidden troves being kept from citizens. To pinpoint a specific detailed description of a document when the government entity claiming the exemptions continues to hide behind the same wall of secrecy that gives rise to the request flies in the face of the object and purpose of the OPRA statute.

For example, to date, and despite multiple rounds of open records requests, CSRR could not get a clear answer on what the ROIC budget is, what its basic structure looks like, and what mechanisms are in place to protect civil rights and civil liberties.

This kind of secrecy is precisely what empowers the ROIC’s insidious commitment to broken windows policing. The ROIC serves as what Professor Brendan McQuade describes as an “outsourced intelligence division” for local police departments. Rather than meaningfully contributing to policing, the ROIC’s major efforts are instead aimed at “information sharing” and the creation and provision of “higher level intelligence products” like crime mapping, data on so-called “hot spots,” and predictive analyses.

This sort of language is anodyne and important-sounding but little more than the jargon of spy craft let loose on historically hollowed-out communities of color. Behind all the law enforcement mumbo-jumbo is a commitment to racist broken-windows policing.

New Jersey’s laws meant to ensure that state agencies can be held accountable to the public are failing. It is thus long overdue for the New Jersey legislature to engage in robust oversight of the state’s fusion center – and to reformulate the basic OPRA law at a statutory level to undo years of bad, anti-transparency activist precedent. Otherwise, New Jersey’s Secret Surveillance System will continue to operate with no regard, much less accountability, for civil liberties violations.

The full report, titled "Shining a Light on New Jersey’s Secret Intelligence System," can be downloaded here.

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