Editorial: Police snooping raises civil liberty worries

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First Deputy Police Supt. Michael Spiotto (center, in hat) tells newsmen in 1975 in the lobby of police headquarters that undercover policemen had been assigned to infiltrate Chicago-area community groups. | Sun-Times Library

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Given Chicago’s notorious “Red Squad” history of illegal police spying on law-abiding groups, this is a city that has to be hyper-vigilant about further police violations of civil liberties.

You might think our police spying days are long behind us. But in Sunday’s Sun-Times, reporter Mick Dumke detailed how the Police Department in recent years has spied on union members, anti-Olympics protesters, the Occupy Movement, NATO demonstrators and critics of the Chinese government. Clearly, Chicago has work to do to ensure the police don’t cross an essential civil liberties line.

In the most troubling example cited by Dumke, the Chicago Police assigned undercover cops to a 2009 Service Employees International Union rally against foreclosures and predatory lending. Police officials justified their dubious snooping by saying “anarchists” might attend and that undercover officials could keep their eyes peeled for suspicious bags or people about to commit violence.


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But there was no need for that. The cops had no good cause to go snooping undercover, with all the inherent risks to civil liberties. Uniformed officers could have handled that one just fine. The SEIU is not exactly the Red Brigades.

The history of Chicago’s Red Squad, which dates all the way back to Haymarket Affair of 1886, demonstrates how police spying is a dangerous slippery slope. In the 1960s and ‘70s, police targeted such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and Operation PUSH. They spied on activists, infiltrated organizations, tried to incite violence and stole membership lists. People such as former Ald. Leon Despres, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Studs Terkel were targets of unlawful surveillance.

We don’t have any evidence that police nowadays are following aldermen as they ride their bikes around Hyde Park, as they did to Despres. But given how reluctant police were to admit their aggressive surveillance at the anti-NATO protest rallies in 2012 — we learned of it only through court proceedings — you have to wonder exactly what they might have been up to in these more recent other cases.

Police are never supposed to interfere with law-abiding people engaging in their constitutionally protected rights to free speech and assembly. A vague concern about potential disorder — “anarchists may attend” — hardly justifies secret police surveillance. That’s an uncomfortably fuzzy a line, one that justifies virtually unlimited surveillance.

When authorities have solid evidence that laws are being broken, they have a responsibility to protect the public. But, as Chicago knows all too well, excessive surveillance chills political involvement and threatens democracy. We’ve been there and done that.

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