Americans deserve to know what their police departments are up to. In Wisconsin, rumors about intelligence gathering operations known as “fusion centers” have raised concerns among civil liberty advocates. What are fusion centers? What has the Milwaukee fusion center been up to during the past year’s protests? A recent article in The Wisconsin Examiner provides some answers.
The original mission: stopping terror
Fusion centers emerged after 9/11 in an effort to promote cohesion between federal, state and local law enforcement officials. Wisconsin has two fusion centers:
- Wisconsin Statewide Information Center (WSIC): Located in Madison and operated by the state Division of Criminal Investigation.
- Southeastern Threat Analysis Center (STAC): Operates in concert with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, covering the eight-county area in Southeastern Wisconsin.
In 2008, the STAC expanded to include an operation called the Intelligence Fusion Center (IFC). Along with this expansion came a shift of focus to street-level crimes and robust surveillance capabilities many fear threaten the privacy and civil liberties of the people of Wisconsin.
Wide-ranging and invasive powers
The fusion center operated in relative obscurity until leaks concerning the police response to the George Floyd protests in 2020 reached the press. Now, we have learned some of the intelligence-gathering capabilities the STAC has been using on our citizens and in our neighborhoods. These include:
- Shot spotting: Allows police officers to activate surveillance cameras in neighborhoods where gunshots are reported.
- Virtual Investigations Unit (VIU): Scours social medial sites for evidence of criminal activity.
- Cell site simulator (CSS): Gives police the capability to track cell phone activity and even intercept cell phone communications.
It is the VIU and CSS that have raised concerns in the wake of the 2020 protests. Many protestors who posted accounts of alleged criminal activity such as being out after curfew later received tickets in the mail from the VIU.
Family members of victims of police brutality have shared accounts of their cell phones acting strangely, and many suspect they are the targets of the fusion center’s CSS capabilities. Milwaukee police deny conducting such surveillance activities, but admit that federal agencies have the authority and capability to do so.
Holding the line for civil liberties
The recent concerns over the Milwaukee fusion center highlight an ongoing struggle for balance between security and freedom in an age of terrorism, mass protest and police misconduct. Police need to harness advanced technology to protect the populace, but when they turn their capabilities against those they are charged with protecting, it is time for civil rights and criminal law attorneys to step into the fray.