Ex-police chief defends spying

Hutchins says program prepared for 'volatile' situations but acknowledges mistakes

October 08, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Former Maryland State Police Superintendent Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins defended yesterday the surveillance and infiltration of protest groups under his watch, saying investigators needed to gather information to prepare for potentially "volatile" demonstrations planned around executions of death row inmates.

In his most extensive remarks since revelations of the spying operations in 2005 and 2006, Hutchins said at a legislative hearing that troopers attended open meetings of protest groups and were not required to announce who they were or show their badges. An Army veteran, Hutchins said the operation began as a way to establish "situational awareness" about possible disturbances during protests.

"These organizations may be extremely well-meaning," Hutchins said. "But the fact of the matter is there are times when fringe people try to tag on to legitimate advocacy groups. ... Volatile demonstrations can erupt quickly and can cause harm to demonstrators and to law enforcement."

State police surveillance of death penalty opponents and peace activists over 14 months during the previous administration has angered civil libertarians and prompted Gov. Martin O'Malley to order an independent review that was released last week. Both O'Malley and former Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who headed the probe, have said that the operations were wrong.

Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the current state police superintendent, said his agency plans to mail certified letters to 53 individuals mistakenly identified as terrorists in a database so they can review their files and request to be purged from the system. The state police also transmitted information on activists to a federal database of suspected terrorists or drug traffickers, which Sachs said may have violated federal law.

Hutchins acknowledged that those classifications were a mistake.

Sachs said police worked under the misguided notion that spying was warranted to protect public safety. He found that the surveillance was not prompted by information that individuals or groups had committed or planned any crimes.

Hutchins denied political motivation for the surveillance, which appeared to end after the execution of Vernon L. Evans Jr. was postponed indefinitely because of a de facto moratorium on lethal injections. Monitoring of anti-war activists seems to have stemmed from the fact that many were also death penalty opponents, according to Sachs.

A crowd packed the hearing room before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, including many wearing circle stickers with a slash through the word "spying." Lawmakers grilled Sachs, Sheridan and Hutchins about the scope and origins of the surveillance, and about why it lasted so long when one trooper noted repeatedly in reports that protesters didn't intend to break the law.

Sachs said it was "jarring" for him that American Friends Service Committee, a peace and social justice advocacy group founded by Quakers, was among the groups targeted, because he attended Quaker schools.

Democratic Sens. C. Anthony Muse of Prince George's County and Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County both noted that they had once been arrested for civil disobedience. And Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery Democrat, asked if any lawmakers were included on the list of terrorists, because many of the advocacy groups visit their offices.

Sheridan said no lawmakers were in the database.

Several lawmakers pressed Sheridan about apologizing to protesters who felt violated by the surveillance. The police superintendent at first said that his agency had not "discussed at any great length any apologies in this case." He later said the letters to those labeled as terrorists explained that police had made "a big mistake" and wanted to make it right.

When Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, asked about backup plans for those who don't receive letters, Sheridan said, "We've got all sorts of ways to find out where people live."

"That's exactly what I'm afraid of," Brochin said.

Other lawmakers, including Sen. Nancy Jacobs, the Republican whip from Harford County, asked whether any surveillance took place outside the period investigated by Sachs, which fell entirely under former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s tenure, or whether other groups could have been subject to infiltration.

While Sachs said his review was limited, he found nothing to suggest that there were other police investigations of protest groups as intrusive or extensive as those described in his report.

Some activists said many unanswered questions remained. Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union, whose public information request first revealed the spying operation, said the Sachs report suggests police undertook a "broad program" and that other still-unidentified individuals and groups may have been wrongfully targeted. They also noted that Sachs did not explore whether local law enforcement had similar programs.

O'Malley, a Democrat, said at a separate event that Sachs did a "pretty thorough job" and that he didn't believe a wider probe was warranted.

The issue is likely to be debated into the next General Assembly session, which begins in January. Lawmakers are expected to discuss whether to enshrine in legislation some Sachs recommendations, particularly a prohibition on covert surveillance of protest or advocacy groups unless the police superintendent makes a written finding that it's justified and based on a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" of a violation of law.

While Sachs and Sheridan said yesterday that such restrictions should be implemented through regulation, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the judicial committee, said he may back such legislation. O'Malley said he is open to discussing the matter.

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