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Atlanta OKs anti-terror cops, encourages public to report suspicious activity

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington has created a new investigative arm that he hopes will both protect the city from a terrorist attack and attract millions of federal dollars.

That's what officials would call a win-win, but critics worry about the implications, and draw comparisons to a police state.

The chief announced his Homeland Security Unit on Wednesday to metro, state and federal security and emergency management officials.

The section will have about 23 investigators who investigate "credible" reports of individuals or organizations that might be assisting terrorists, Pennington said.

"It's based on intel [intelligence], and the information has to be somewhat reliable," the chief said. "We're not going to start investigating an individual or a group based on an anonymous tip."

While they might not investigate every tip, the police are encouraging the public to report suspicious activity, which coupled with information gathered by federal and state law enforcement agencies, could prevent a terrorist attack, Pennington said.

But defining "credible" is what worries people like Ray Miklethun, who noted it usually takes a court decision to define when police are behaving reasonably

"Everybody agrees that a responsibility of government is to provide security for its citizens," said Miklethun, spokesman for Greater Atlanta Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, a small activist group. "But we don't want to create an East Germany or Soviet Union where people are watching their neighbors and turning them in."

The new department has given assurances that police won't photograph demonstrators or investigate based on ethnic profiling, Miklethun said.

So far, Atlanta hasn't had a credible threat, but federal, state and city agencies are already sharing information about potential threats, Pennington said.

But it will take money to get and use the latest technology. The chief hopes to win millions of dollars in federal aid by establishing a unit designed to deal with homeland security. Pennington noted that other cities -- including New Orleans, where he used to be chief, and Washington -- got millions of dollars in aid for homeland security last year.

"Atlanta didn't receive any, and a lot of that goes back to not having a homeland security office," he said. "We need millions."

Jim Cook, director of the Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, said the city fire department is fairly well equipped and well trained to respond to a weapons-of-mass-destruction attack.

That isn't true of the police department, he said.
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