During the 1960’s the New York City Police Department’s radical squad, known as the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS), opened an average of one thousand political investigations a year, targeting such groups as the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Congress of Racial Equality. By 1968 BOSS accumulated a master index of over one million individual entries.
Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, state and local law enforcement agencies began moving away from traditional criminal justice methods when dealing with political activists. During and after 2000 and 2001 demonstrations in Washington, D.C., the police engaged in undercover infiltration of political advocacy organizations, unnecessary violence against peaceful protesters and hundreds of pre-emptive arrests. This led the D.C. City Council to enact legislation to protect demonstrators’ First Amendment rights by passing legislation regulating how the police train for, investigate and manage public demonstrations, and requiring individualized probable cause to arrest protesters involved in illegal activity. Despite the condemnation of these unlawful police tactics, surveillance and infiltration of advocacy organizations and pre-emptive arrests became the methods of choice during protests in Miami in 2003, New York in 2004 and Minneapolis in 2008.
After 9/11, many state and local police agencies embraced a concept called intelligence-led policing (ILP). ILP focuses on the gathering and analysis of “intelligence” in the pursuit of proactive strategies “geared toward crime control and quality of life issues” (emphasis added). This new theory of criminal intelligence argues that collecting even outwardly innocuous behaviors will somehow enhance security.
The erosion of reasonable limits on police intelligence powers has set the stage for a return of the abusive practices of the past. In recent years the ACLU has uncovered substantial evidence that domestic intelligence powers are being misused at all levels of government to target non-violent political activists. In 2002 the ACLU of Colorado revealed illegal surveillance of peaceful protestors and environmental activists by the Denver Police and the FBI; in 2006 the ACLU of Northern California documented widespread illegal spying activities by federal, state and local officials; and in 2008 the ACLU of Maryland uncovered a Maryland State Police (MSP) intelligence operation that targeted 23 non-violent political advocacy organizations based solely on the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
The ACLU has now documented evidence of police surveillance and obstruction of First Amendment protected activity in 36 states and the District of Columbia since 9/11.
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