ACLU of RI Calls on Providence to Investigate Possible Political Surveillance by Police

February 20, 2003 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
Rhode Island ACLU
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PROVIDENCE, RI–Prompted by the recent disclosure by city officials here that wiretapping equipment had been installed at the city’s year-old public safety complex, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today said that it is calling on police officials to investigate whether officers have engaged in illegal surveillance of political activists or opponents over the years.

While emphasizing that there was no direct evidence that illegal surveillance of any groups took place under previous administrations, Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said that in light of past scandals, “it would be foolhardy to ignore the possibility that Providence police have engaged in this kind of illegal surveillance.”

At a press conference convened last week, Providence’s newly inaugurated mayor, David Cicilline and his police chief, Dean Esserman announced the discovery of the surveillance equipment they say was installed surreptitiously following construction of the public safety complex.

In an attempt to shed further light on the possibility that illegal surveillance of citizens has taken place, the ACLU has filed a formal request for information on the recently discovered surveillance equipment under the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA).

The ACLU also called on Police Chief Esserman to formally enact new and strict safeguards on political surveillance. ” Especially in light of both the wiretapping scandal and, on a grander scale, the growth of public political activism in the city and the country in response to the planned war with Iraq, now is the time for the Department to put in place a strong policy to prevent misuse of police resources for political spying,” the ACLU letter said.

As the ACLU noted, “police spying on protesters or political opponents is not a novel concept. A number of cities across the country remain under court orders and consent decrees after disclosures of widespread political surveillance by police departments came to the surface in the 1970’s. But this is not just a problem from the distant past. Only two months ago, the New York Times reported on revelations that the Denver Police Department had been gathering information on local political activists since the 1950’s, and had been continuing to do so until the surveillance was uncovered last year.”

The letter recalled the 1999 discovery of a surveillance camera inside a police sub-station roll call room and recent corruption-related charges and convictions involving the most recent Mayoral administration, all of which, the ACLU said, “suggest an atmosphere conducive to such surveillance.”

The ACLU also cited the City’s establishment in the 1980’s of the “Terrorist-Extremist Suppression Team” (TEST). Although allegedly organized to investigate problems of neo-Nazi vandalism in the city, the ACLU vigorously opposed formation of the team at the time for fear that it would be used to investigate political activities. Indeed, as it turned out, TEST’s first target was the head of a small left-wing organization called the Proletarian Warriors, whose members were followed by TEST and charged with numerous petty offenses related to their free speech activities.

The letter to Police Chief Esserman follows:

February 19, 2003

Col. Dean Esserman

Chief of Police

Providence Police Department

325 Washington Street

Providence, RI 02903

Dear Chief Esserman:

I am writing to both seek information from you and to request that you conduct a thorough investigation on an important matter. Both of these requests are prompted by the disclosure of the wiretapping equipment at the City’s public safety complex, as that has raised a broader concern for us. Specifically, we are concerned about the possibility that Providence police may have engaged in surveillance of political activists or political opponents in the City over the years.

In saying that, let me immediately point out that we have no direct evidence that such surveillance took place under previous administrations. At the same time, we believe it would be foolhardy at this point to ignore that possibility. We therefore believe an investigation is in order to try to definitively answer that question.

As I’m sure you are aware, police spying on protesters or political opponents is not a novel concept. A number of cities across the country remain under court orders and consent decrees after disclosures of widespread political surveillance by police departments came to the surface in the 1970’s. But this is not just a problem from the distant past. Only two months ago, the New York Times reported on revelations that the Denver Police Department had been gathering information on local political activists since the 1950’s, and had been continuing to do so until the surveillance was uncovered last year. Ironically, this improper surveillance was apparently aided by new technology that had been purchased by the Department to categorize and analyze crime information. I have enclosed a copy of that article for your information.

Quite frankly, we fear that Providence may not have been immune to this type of completely inappropriate activity. We now have two recent revelations of internal surveillance within the police department – both the wiretapping of the public safety complex within the past year and the 1999 discovery of a surveillance camera inside a police sub-station roll call room. The recent corruption-related charges and convictions involving the most recent Mayoral administration also suggest an atmosphere conducive to such surveillance. Finally, there is at least a tainted history within the Police Department that could have easily sown the seeds for on- going political surveillance. I refer to the City’s establishment in the 1980’s of the incredibly-named “Terrorist-Extremist Suppression Team” (TEST). Although allegedly organized to investigate problems of neo-Nazi vandalism in the city, the ACLU vigorously opposed formation of the team at the time for fear that it would be used to investigate political activities. Its name alone – suggesting the propriety of “suppressing” “extremists” – was cause for alarm. Indeed, as it turned out, TEST’s first target was the head of a small left-wing organization called the Proletarian Warriors, whose members were followed by TEST and charged with numerous petty offenses related to their free speech activities. While the Team was soon-thereafter supposedly disbanded, it remained unclear to us as to whether it disappeared or simply made a metamorphosis into something else.

For these reasons, we respectfully call upon you to conduct a thorough investigation and audit of police record files to determine whether any records were produced or maintained over the years that involve investigation of the non-criminal activity of police officers, political opponents of previous administrations, or political activists engaged in protected First Amendment activity for various causes.

Secondly, we are interested in receiving copies of: (1) any Departmental policies that address the subject of non-criminal surveillance, and (2) information regarding any and all software technology used by the Department – such as programs for tracking or analyzing information about gangs, alleged terrorists or others – that, as shown in Denver, has the potential for use for political surveillance and collection activities. Please consider this a formal request for that information pursuant to the state’s Access to Public Records Act.

Finally, since we assume that any polices currently in place on this issue are inadequate, we also urge you to formally enact at this time new and strict safeguards on political surveillance by your Department. Especially in light of both the wiretapping scandal and, on a grander scale, the growth of public political activism in the city and the country in response to the planned war with Iraq, now is the time for the Department to put in place a strong policy to prevent misuse of police resources for political spying.

Thank you in advance for your attention to these requests, and I hope to hear back from you shortly.

Sincerely,

Steven Brown

Executive Director

Enclosure

cc: The Hon. David Cicilline

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