This story is part of a KXAN series of reports called “Stop Mass Shootings,” providing context and exploring solutions surrounding gun violence in the wake of the deadly Uvalde school shooting. We want our reports to be a resource for Texans, as well as for lawmakers who are convening a month after the events in Uvalde to discuss how the state should move forward. Explore all “Stop Mass Shootings” stories by clicking here.
AUSTIN (KXAN) – After a gunman murdered 19 fourth graders and two teachers at an Uvalde elementary school in May, Gov. Greg Abbott called on Texas’ top education and law enforcement officials to redouble their efforts to promote the state’s suspicious activity reporting system: iWatchTexas.
“The use of this single, statewide reporting system better ensures that tips from different parts of the community are better reported back to the schools to allow for the appropriate interventions and enhance school safety,” Abbott said in a letter sent June 7 to the heads of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Education Agency and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Abbott and law enforcement experts tout suspicious activity reporting and iWatchTexas as some of the best tools available to preemptively thwart an attack. Texas received nearly 7,700 of the reports in 2021, a 59% increase over 2020, according to DPS data.
DPS Director Steve McCraw again promoted the suspicious activity reporting network Tuesday at a Texas Senate subcommittee hearing on the Uvalde shooting and law enforcement’s response to it. The gunman made “disturbing” statements to acquaintances in private messages online before the massacre, but they were not reported to law enforcement, he said.
“All it takes is one report that might give us the opportunity, and obviously that didn’t happen in this case,” McCraw said.
But while law enforcement and state leaders praise and promote the suspicious activity reporting system, some civil rights scholars and privacy activists question its effectiveness – saying it may not be worth the cost and can lead to mass surveillance of innocent people.
Digging into Texas’ suspicious activity reports
Tips submitted to iWatchTexas filter into Texas’ fusion centers. There, a combination of local, state and federal law enforcement officers sift through and investigate them. Texas has seven fusion centers – the most of any state.
Fred Burton, a former special agent, author and executive director for the ONTIC Center for Protective Intelligence in Austin, said there is “no doubt” suspicious activity reports are useful in preventing attacks. He described the system as “wonderful,” “robust” and helpful in funneling information to the right people.
“In order to connect the dots, you have to collect the dots in our business,” Burton said.
DPS said all the suspicious activity reports in its data were vetted in a Texas fusion center and represent a “potential investigative lead that could be investigated by the appropriate law enforcement agency,” according to an agency spokesperson’s email.
How police handled the tips isn’t clear from the data. DPS said it doesn’t track that information. The agency did not provide a specific reason for not tracking those items.
DPS also monitors “threats to life,” which involve imminent or potential threats, and threats of “serious bodily injury, or significant violent action that may include a threat to public safety, use of weapons of mass destruction, crisis calls, active shooter, threat to law enforcement, or terrorism,” according to DPS.
Threats to life have been ticking up. In 2019, there were 263 threats to life; last year there were 757, DPS wrote in an email.
Burton used the term “pre-operational surveillance” to describe a common pattern among attackers that can be spotted and reported to authorities. Every attacker will want to do some type of reconnaissance on their target; it could be physically visiting or cyber stalking, he said.
“They are going to do their homework,” Burton said. It is during that preparatory surveillance when attackers are “typically very sloppy” and vulnerable for people or law enforcement to spot and report, he added.
The genesis of iWatch and how it’s expanded
Abbott’s recent call to promote iWatchTexas in June echoed a similar order he made three years ago.
Following a mass shooting that left 23 dead and 23 injured at an El Paso Walmart in 2019, Abbott issued an executive order telling the heads of Texas’ law enforcement and education agencies to promote the use of suspicious activity reports. Abbott also called for increased staff at fusion centers. The efforts stopped “at least one school shooting,” Abbott said in his June letter.
KXAN visited the El Paso fusion center in 2019, following the shooting. Dustin Liston, a lieutenant with the El Paso Police Department at the time and director of the fusion center said law enforcement agencies used to keep information in silos, and the fusion centers help break through those communication barriers.
Liston noted a suspicious activity report tip helped the FBI stop and arrest Richard Holzer, of Pueblo, Colorado, in 2019 before he carried out a plot to bomb a Jewish temple. Holzer, 29, was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison.
“It’s very important that, like (Department of Homeland Security) says, ‘if you see something, say something,’ let the police know that you’ve observed something suspicious,” said Burton, using the phrase created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “And the system is geared to thoroughly vet those kinds of reports today, like no time else in the history of our nation.”
While Abbott and experts like Burton promote the effectiveness of suspicious activity reports, available data from DPS doesn’t show how many of the nearly 7,700 tips the state received last year were found credible or resulted in an arrest or thwarted attack.
In a request sent last month to DPS, KXAN asked for a breakdown showing the number of tips vetted, investigative leads generated, threats identified, arrests made and threats to life processed.
KXAN asked for those specific pieces of information because they are identified as “outputs” of the suspicious activity network software DPS requested funding for in a 2020 “exceptional item” budget appropriation document. DPS said it doesn’t currently count those outputs.
In response to our request, DPS sent the numbers of tips it received each month.
“The Texas Fusion Center does not track police action, arrests, or convictions resulting from tips,” according to a DPS email.
Jake Wiener, an attorney and fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, said he’s found suspicious activity reporting systems and fusion centers are not solving pressing problems. EPIC is a nonprofit research and advocacy group that focuses on privacy and civil liberty issues.
Wiener said he’s been working for two years on a report about fusion centers and has reviewed data made public by the so-called BlueLeaks – a massive trove of hacked law enforcement data released in 2020. The BlueLeaks data include a cache of records from the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, or ARIC, a local fusion center.
Wiener said he has read “probably thousands” of suspicious activity reports received by different fusion centers, and they are “generally very low-quality intelligence.”
The results, Wiener said, are intelligence centers gathering mostly mediocre tips that lead to widespread intrusive surveillance of innocent people.
“Fusion Centers, more broadly, are something that between the states and the federal government, we spend $400 million a year on, and have never proven their value,” Wiener said. “But what they do very well is they do a lot of surveillance of political dissidents, of protesters, of ordinary folks going about their lives, which does not prevent crime.”
In its budget request for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, DPS sought $18.7 million for statewide unified information sharing. That total included $2.6 million for the state’s suspicious activity reporting network and $6.1 million for protective threat monitoring and analysis, according to the 2020 funding request.
In July 2021, a report authored by a Boston University School of Law professor and students singled out Austin’s fusion center as lacking transparency and having little oversight. ARIC conducts wide surveillance of Austin residents and uses city resources to share the personal information of vulnerable residents with federal authorities, putting them at greater risk of arrest, detention and deportation, according to the report, which used information obtained through BlueLeaks.
The report, citing the law enforcement data leak, said ARIC targeted Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. ARIC “has refused to abide by even the weak oversight mechanisms and civil liberty protections proscribed in its own policy,” according to the report.
Austin Police Department manages ARIC. An APD spokesperson said the center only shares information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to assist with active ICE criminal cases. ARIC does not “continually” monitor protests and events. It only monitors to determine if there could be a safety concern for the community, according to the spokesperson.
KXAN asked DPS for a response to Wiener’s comments and the contents of the Boston Law School report, but the agency did not respond.
APD said ARIC has received over 450 suspicious activity reports this year, including 162 school-safety related tips.
DPS operates and oversees the iWatch system. When it get a report through the system that falls within the jurisdiction of a regional fusion center, DPS notifies that regional center and lets it take ownership of the investigation.
Every state is mandated by U.S. DHS to have a statewide fusion center, and Texas’ is operated by DPS.
Local officials can create and operate regional fusion centers to cover major metro areas. ARIC, for example, covers the same counties under the umbrella of the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG). ARIC is “co-located” on the DPS fusion center campus and, as result, shares information easily with state police, according to a source with extensive knowledge of the fusion centers in Texas.
Numbers state by state
To get a basic understanding of how many tips other states receive, KXAN reached out to more than 25 of the most populous states. We asked state police and public safety departments a simple question: how many suspicious activity reports did your state receive in the last few years? If the states prepared annual reports or audits of fusion center activities, we asked for those.
Some states quickly provided concrete statistics and prepared reports. Some states had no records at all. The responses showed an inconsistent approach to data keeping from state to state.
For example, Colorado provided an annual report, a recent data summary and information showing its “Safe2Tell” reporting program had received more than 20,000 suspicious activity reports in the past year. Florida and Pennsylvania provided data showing the number of requests received last year. Ohio and Oregon provided only suspicious activity reports related to schools. Oregon maintains a website with its program’s annual reports. Several states provided nothing.
A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security said the state “does not have the data nor the type of report or link(s) you inquired about.”
Illinois appears to have no statewide suspicious activity reporting system. Outside of Chicago’s Cook County, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website says a person should “call 911” to report suspicious activity in Illinois.
Other states – include Texas and California – would not provide information without a formal public information request.
“We’ve had about 20 years to kind of get this right, which means for fusion centers to show their work, to show what they’re doing and the impact of it, and they’ve never been able to do so,” Wiener told KXAN. “In my experience, police departments generally do not shy away from showing that they’ve been successful. So, if in the last 20 years, we have almost no accounts of fusion centers successfully preventing a mass violence event, terrorism, something like that, that suggests to me that they haven’t done it.”