Court documents filed by the American Civil Liberties Union have revealed the extent of the Memphis Police Department’s surveillance of local activists.
The ACLU originally filed the lawsuit in March 2017 believing the department had been illegally spying on activists, but this week’s statement of undisputed facts shows the spying went far beyond what was previously suspected.
According to Citylab, the force began spying on local activists at the request of Mayor Jim Strickland. However, officers soon began spying on the associates of those activists as well. The department also began using plainclothes police officers to infiltrate black community events that had nothing to do with political protest, like a black food festival.
The lawsuit largely focuses on a “City Hall Escort List” the police created to track activist who stepped on the city hall’s grounds.
The surveillance was originally centered on people appearing on the "City Hall Escort List," a list comprised primarily of Black Lives Matter supporters who had protested at City Hall. The list also featured these BLM supporters' "associates in fact," a group that included people connected to the supporters on social media or who had been seen in public with them.
In addition to spying on these people, the department also compiled “joint intelligence briefs.”
These briefs were essentially dossiers on planned anti-police brutality demonstrations. The department included demonstrations taking place outside of Memphis in these reports, and shared them with Tennessee's Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. military, the U.S. Department of Justice, local utility companies and with both FedEx and Autozone.
The court documents also found police using social media software, a fake Facebook profile and undercover officers to spy on BLM activists and supporters.
A trial is scheduled in August. However, the ACLU wants the judge to cancel that trial and render a decision based on the submitted information. It also wants an the enforcement of a 1978 consent decree that banned the surveillance of activists.
“If the decree didn’t exist, there may be a different approach to calling out this kind of surveillance,” said Thomas Castelli, director of the ACLU’s Tennessee division. “It’s problematic and can have chilling effects on people exercising their constitutional rights. Police in general have a tremendous amount of power and they can have a coercive effect, so we would be condemning these practices as bad for free speech and public policy.”
Memphis Police Director Michael W. Rallings released a statement on Tuesday defending the force’s actions, reports Local Memphis.
“Monitoring these public social media posts is simply good police work, which has allowed us to make operations plans to protect both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, keeping everyone safe without violence,” Rallings wrote. “I want to be clear: my officers have never interfered with anyone lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. In fact, MPD has gone out of its way to ensure all demonstrations, even unlawful, unpermitted ones, are allowed to move forward, from the 2016 bridge protest, to Valero, to the statue protests, Antifa, KKK and Confederate 901."
City Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen also defended the spying.
“MPD's observance of posts made on social media is consistent with best practices of law enforcement agencies across the country and is nothing more than good police work,” he wrote. “The city is confident MPD's social media practices do not raise any constitutional issues. Furthermore, we have been in compliance with a fair and practical interpretation of the consent decree for almost forty years."
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