Groups Object to Firefighters As Spies

By MIKE SCHNEIDER | Associated Press Writer
Posted Fri, Jul. 09, 2004

ORLANDO, Fla. - Civil rights advocates criticized a plan to teach firefighters and other workers who regularly go into homes to report terrorist activity they see on the job.

The plan, proposed by a local domestic security task force, could invade privacy and add to a culture of suspicion and paranoia created after the Sept. 11 attacks, said members of the American Civil Liberties Union and a defense lawyers association.

"We think it is misguided," said Scott Rost of the ACLU's Orlando office. "We think it's an attempt to turn neighbor against neighbor, intrude on privacy and encourage racial profiling with little reason to believe it will make us safer."

A brochure for the Citizen Awareness Program warns that a potential sign of international terrorism could be "multiple adult males living together, usually of Middle Eastern appearance and between the ages of 18 and 45, with little or no furnishings."

The warning worries members of Orlando's Arab-American community.

"Clearly, this is going to disproportionately impact Arab Americans and those of the Muslim faith," said defense attorney Mark NeJame, a leader of the Arab American Community Center in Orlando. "To think that a terrorist is going to invite people to snoop around is ludicrous at best. It's not only silly, but silly and scary at the same time."

The proposal also calls for reporting signs of drug trafficking and child sex abuse.

The domestic security task force is led by the Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar and Joyce Dawley, regional director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Orange County sheriff's Capt. Mark Pilkington said the plan was no more than an educational program to train workers who regularly go into people's homes on what terrorist, drug or sexually predatory activities look like.

The sheriff's office would like Orange County's firefighters to be the first trained, followed by utility workers.

"We're not asking anybody to do more than their job," Pilkington said. "We don't want them to exceed their purpose for being there. We're not asking them to look anywhere they shouldn't. Just contact law enforcement."

The brochure reprints the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. It also warns participants that they are not law enforcement officers and should not enter unauthorized areas or remove anything for evidence.

The intent of the program was to "rekindle good, old American citizenship," said Lamar, who dismissed Arab-American concerns as political correctness.

The program resembles a federal program, TIPS, that was proposed by the U.S. Justice Department two years ago but was severely scaled back after it faced similar criticisms.

The program could have meter readers acting like "junior G-men," said Thomas Kurrus, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

"Any homeowner ought to be concerned about it," he said.