Hate Squad

Concern about "hate crimes" is resuscitating the Chicago police department's long-dormant Red Squad, an intelligence unit that specialized in infiltrating, harassing, and gathering intelligence on political groups. Since 1981, Chicago's cops have been under a consent decree that greatly limited such activity: They couldn't start spying on a group until they had evidence that a crime was likely to be committed. But in January, reports the Chicago Sun-Times, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals untied the Chicago cops' hands by modifying that decree.

The court ruled that threats from "terrorists" and "hate groups" presented a greater danger than police harassment and spying. "If the investigation cannot begin until the group is well on its way toward the commission of terrorist acts," it declared, "the investigation may come too late to prevent the acts or to identify the perpetrators." The decision was written by Judge Richard Posner, the court's chief judge and the author of last year's controversial study of the Clinton impeachment, An Affair of State (see"Sex, Economics, and Other Legal Matters," page 36).Posner's ruling was hailed as a victory for Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley Jr., who has long argued that the 1981 consent decree needed modification.

While a police spokesman termed the decision "a tremendous victory for common sense," the American Civil Liberties Union called the ruling "a significant setback." Police will again be able to amass databases on groups whom they think might commit terrorist acts and hate crimes, though a city official has claimed in the Sun-Times that the police will still not be able to use such intelligence to harass or intimidate dissidents. Officials also argue that the current Chicago police force is younger and "better educated" than the cops of 20 years ago.

The ruling may offer a lesson in the malleability of police restraint. Over the past century, police have at various times been allowed to infiltrate and gather intelligence on a series of groups perceived as special threats, from anarchists to Bolsheviks to black nationalists to Old and New Left radicals, only to have such police activities later condemned and "regretted." The rhetoric of the "special threat" has in recent decades encompassed potential domestic terrorism, and now it focuses increasingly on perpetrators of "hate crimes."

According to the Sun-Times, Mayor Daley focused his campaign to change the consent decree on such crimes, citing in particular a gunshot attack last fall against a local rabbi, and the menacing of Jewish pedestrians in the city, who were reportedly targeted by slingshot.

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