In January, the St. Paul Police Department in St. Paul, Minnesota issued a new policy that outlines circumstances under which the police can investigate groups planning to engage in protests under the first amendment. The document–titled “Policy and guidelines for investigations and information gathering operations involving First Amendment Activity “–outlines circumstances under which the police can monitor “the activities of groups involved in or planning demonstrations and counter demonstrations which may affect public safety; violate state, local or federal laws; or which may result in a public safety risk.” While the document contains a number of restrictions on how and when the police can monitor groups, it also gives them broad authority to do so.
The St. Paul Police Department has said that the new document is a routine revision of their procedures, but it is impossible to separate it from the upcoming Republican National Convention (RNC). The RNC will take place in the Twin Cities from September 1 to September 4. Already, it has been the target of organizing and a variety of protests are planned for the event. In 2004 when the RNC was held in New York City, the New York Police Department (NYPD) engaged in extensive surveillance of groups planning to protest the RNC. The NYPD sent officers around the country and to Canada and Europe to spy on activists planning–and in some cases not planning–to attend the protests.
In an article published on Monday in the Star Tribune, a representative of the St. Paul Police Department said, “We are not following the New York model. We’ve been saying that from the beginning.” However, the document was criticized in the same article by lawyers for its lack of independent oversight and accountability and for appearing to be designed to allow spying on activist groups. Representatives with the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were quoted saying that they believe the threshold for determining what is “unlawful activity” and therefore what is subject to investigation is too low.
The guidelines states that “…the St Paul Police Department (“SPPD”) will not initiate or participation in the investigations into groups or individuals based solely upon their lawful exercise of First Amendment activity.” It also says that it will not initiate investigations based on a group’s political beliefs. However, its opening page makes its intentions clear:
“The SPPD shall conduct pro-active criminal investigations and information gathering operations with the intent to detect, deter, or prevent unlawful and criminal activity. In the event oral or written communication advocates unlawful activity, or indicates an apparent intent to engage in unlawful conduct, particularly acts of violence, an investigation under these guidelines Is warranted, unless it is readily apparent to a reasonable law enforcement officer that the individual or the organization lacks the means or ability to carry out such unlawful acts. Investigations shall be terminated when all logical leads have been exhausted and no legitimate law enforcement purpose justifies their continuance.”
Under the guidelines, the St. Paul Police Department is allowed to “participate in the identifying, tracking, and operating of informational systems” to identify and locate potential lawbreakers, is allowed to attend and record any public event, is allowed to do online research, and issue reports to the rest of the department. If the “information gathering” raises concerns, the police are allowed to investigate leads and conduct “preliminary inquiries” in which “all lawful investigative techniques” are allowed–including the use of undercover officers. If a “full investigation” is launched, the police have greater ability to use more “intrusive” forms of information gathering including undercover officers and informants.
While the guidelines do grant authority to use undercover officers, they are prohibited from taking a disruptive role in groups:
“Undercover officers and confidential informants are prohibited from engaging in any conduct in which the sole purpose is designed to disrupt the lawful exercise of First Amendment activity. The undercover officers and confidential informants are also forbidden from disrupting the lawful operations of an organization, from sowing seeds of distrust between members of an organization, or from instigating unlawful acts or engaging in unlawful or unauthorized investigative activities. Undercover officers shall not be come so involved in a group that they are involved in directing the operations of a group, either by accepting a formal position in the hierarchy or by informally setting the group’s policy and priorities.”
It is also worth noting that the guidelines make it clear that the St. Paul Police officers are not required to identify themselves or leave if requested. The document states:
“Undercover officers are not required to identify themselves or leave a gathering if it is requested that law enforcement officers leave or identify themselves. In addition, the presence of legal counsel at a meeting does not require and undercover officer to avoid or leave the meeting or gathering.”
Unfortunately, it is a common fallacy among activist groups that undercover police officers must leave if asked. This is not true and cannot substitute for practicing good security culture. Basically, that means being smart and not talking about anything illegal in open meetings, not engaging in direct action protests with people you do not know, and not bragging about what you have done in the past.
Overall, the St. Paul Police Department’s SIU Policy sets out guidelines that will allow it to spy on activist groups organizing for this summer’s protests against the Republican National Convention (RNC) and beyond. While there may be some elements in it that may technically restrict some of what the police can do, it is important that we remember there is a long history of police departments and other law enforcement agencies infiltrating and disrupting social movements. In many instances, this was done in violation of the law and there is no reason to believe that they will not do it again.
Finally, the guidelines do not apply to investigations that are being handled by a member of the St. Paul Police Department under the direction the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. In recent years, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces have been used to spy on environmental and antiwar activists across the country, including here in Michigan.