In Los Angeles, as elsewhere in this country, fear of enemies in our midst — be they Communists, trade unionists or foreign terrorists — too often has led to violations of the privacy of law-abiding Americans. Given that history, civil libertarians and members of the Muslim community were right to press the Los Angeles Police Department to ensure that a program designed to detect possible terrorist activity doesn't cast suspicion on individuals whose only "offense" is to exercise their right to free speech or belong to a particular ethnic or religious group.
The result is an amended set of guidelines approved by the city Police Commission for the handling of "Suspicious Activity Reports." Though the new guidelines don't go as far as the American Civil Liberties Union would like, they make it less likely that police will record the identities of persons whose conduct is neither criminal nor reasonably suggestive of possible terrorist connections. That's an important step forward.
So-called SARs are controversial because they are not limited to criminal activity; they can also be filed if a person behaves in a manner that, while legal, may be suspicious — such as abandoning luggage in a railway station or taking photographs of a power plant. Especially since 9/11, citizens often alert police to such activities. (They also may pass on "information" rooted in paranoia or prejudice, such as the fact that a new neighbor wears a turban or speaks Arabic. Police insist they will promptly discard such reports as "unfounded.")