Civil Liberties

Policing Dissent

Political spying

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When the standup comic Lenny Bruce started getting busted for obscenity, he worked his court transcripts and police reports into his act, reading them aloud in lieu of telling jokes. There may come a day when Denver dissidents find similar fun in the political dossiers gathered by local police and leaked recently to the American Civil Liberties Union. Members of the American Friends Service Committee, for example, may someday chuckle over the file that declared the Quaker organization a "criminal extremist group." For now, though, they're just angry.

According to local authorities, the spies simply misinterpreted the scope of the city's criminal intelligence, leading—in the words of C.L. Harmer of the Denver Department of Safety—to "an overly broad interpretation of a sound policy." Police keep files on criminals and those who interact with them all the time, Harmer notes. In this case, officers extended their surveillance to activities that were not criminal at all, even though department guidelines state that police "shall not collect or maintain criminal intelligence information about the political, religious, or social views, associations, or activities of any individual…unless such information directly relates to criminal conduct or activity."

That plain language has led several activists to doubt the city's story. "I've heard that policy read aloud," comments Maxine Lankford of Denver CopWatch. "What happened wasn't a 'misinterpretation'—it was deliberate disobedience."

The police currently hold about 3,200 files on individuals and 208 on groups, some of them genuinely criminal and some of them peaceful dissidents. The spies seem to have a special interest in organizations critical of police misconduct: Denver CopWatch has itself been watched by cops, while two more watchdog groups, End the Politics of Cruelty and Justice for Mena, were tarred with the "criminal extremist" label. (Justice for Mena is concerned with the death of Ismael Mena, a man shot in 1999 when a SWAT team raided the wrong house.)

Not that other organizations were immune from police attention. One dossier notes that an activist was "Speaker and event organizer for Amnesty International, demonstration 2-23-2000"—ominous behavior indeed.

Mayor Wellington Webb—himself a target of FBI surveillance in the 1970s—has promised an official review of the files and of the procedures that produced them. While that has pleased local activists, many feel it does not go far enough. CopWatch wants the audit to be conducted by a broad-based panel that includes representatives of the protest community. It also bemoans the city's refusal to release the dossiers to the people discussed within them. "We think we should be able to see our own files," says Lankford. "And we want to know who they've shared them with."