Critics of police spying sue Denver

City serves as example of how fear of terrorism could lead to abuses

January 29, 2003|By Judith Graham | Judith Graham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DENVER - Glen Morris, a Native American activist, learned of a plot to kill him when he read a secret file that the Denver Police Department had kept on him for 16 years.

The FBI had told Denver police that a rival faction in the American Indian Movement was plotting the assassination. The police put the information in their records but never contacted Morris.

When Sister Antonia Anthony got her file, she discovered that a group she had helped establish, the Chiapas Coalition, had been labeled a "criminal extremist" organization "dedicated to the overthrow of the Mexican government."

The white-haired, 74-year-old Franciscan nun threw up her hands and laughed heartily when asked her reaction. "Ridiculous, just ludicrous," she said and, turning serious, "shocking."

Denver's police spy file scandal spans nearly five decades of secret intelligence-gathering on more than 3,200 people and 208 organizations.

Many of those people did nothing more than attend peaceful protests at the state Capitol or go to meetings of groups that police decided might represent a threat to public order. Among those were Amnesty International and the American Friends Service Committee, both recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now, as police departments from New York City to Los Angeles press for expanded surveillance capabilities in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Denver police find themselves barraged with criticism and held up as an example of what can go wrong when police powers are largely unchecked.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which brought the spy files to light, has filed a class action lawsuit against the city seeking to end such intelligence-gathering practices as videotaping peaceful demonstrations and infiltrating meetings of organizations with no record of criminal activity.

"These kind of practices have the potential to harm people's ability or willingness to freely express criticism of government policies, chilling free speech," said Mark Silverstein, Colorado ACLU legal director.

"Who does this information go to? How widely has it been shared?" he asked. In an era of terrorist threats and heightened security, being labeled a criminal extremist or tagged as a suspicious person in a government database can have serious consequences, Silverstein said.

Although city officials have admitted some practices were wrong, Denver municipal lawyers are contesting the suit, arguing that no overt harm was done. Meanwhile, Denver has implemented a new policy allowing police to collect intelligence only if there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person is involved in criminal activity.

The alleged abuses in Denver evoke memories of police spying scandals of the past, such as the FBI's infamous Cointelpro operation under J. Edgar Hoover, which monitored civil rights leaders and anti-Vietnam War groups, and Chicago's Red Squad, whose snooping on political activists reached a zenith in the 1960s and 1970s.

Legal restrictions subsequently imposed on Chicago police were eased two years ago after the city argued that its ability to investigate gangs and terrorism had been compromised.

Spying on activists by New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle police, largely in the 1960s and 1970s, resulted in court decrees prohibiting the practices that remained in effect.

While Denver's scandal does not seem to be as far-reaching as those others, it is casting a long shadow over Mayor Wellington Webb's final months in office and providing political fodder for eight candidates who hope to win the city's top job in a May election.

Neither Webb nor any other former mayor or police chief acknowledges knowing that intelligence files were kept on peaceful protesters, though photocopies of some files show their offices were sent that information on numerous occasions.

Webb "had no knowledge whatsoever of these files," said mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson. "The minute we recognized what was going on, we put a stop to it."

Having been the subject of an FBI spy operation in the 1970s, along with other civil rights and labor leaders, "the mayor is especially sensitive to this kind of thing," Hudson said.

Don Mares, Denver's auditor and a candidate for mayor, finds the denials frustrating.

"You know this city has a serious problem when no one seems to be accepting responsibility for the management of this [police intelligence] function," he said. "To have had this little oversight of this unit in the months after 9/11 is a travesty."

Webb and his allies have had their share of embarrassing misstatements and retractions. Last March, when the existence of some spy files was first revealed, the mayor confidently announced that Denver had "very good policies" on intelligence-gathering that police had overstepped.

In fact, city officials now admit such policies were never in place. "That's the real problem," Hudson said.

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