In the days following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Chicago Police Department began gathering intelligence on protesters without the legal authorization to do so, according to police records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The department previously has acknowledged spying on protesters including African-American and left-wing activists speaking out against police tactics in the wake of the Ferguson killing. Officials said the investigations were legally authorized, followed department safeguards designed to protect First Amendment rights and were carried out under the watchful eyes of department lawyers.
But that wasn’t always the case, the newly obtained records show.
A police intelligence-gathering unit tracked demonstrators and exchanged information about them with federal officials for nearly three months before getting the required approval from the department’s general counsel, according to the records, which the police released in response to a series of requests made under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
On Aug. 14, 2014, Kathleen Lichay, an intelligence research specialist with the U.S. State Department, e-mailed Chicago Police Department officials to ask whether they had picked up any “chatter” about vigils planned in response to the fatal shooting five days earlier of Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb. The shooting — for which a grand jury ultimately decided not to file charges — prompted protests around the nation.
Half an hour after sending the email, Lichay got a response from the Crime Prevention Information Center in Chicago, where the police collect intelligence alongside agents from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. An official there wrote back that activists were planning a rally that evening at the Daley Center.
At the bottom of the e-mail, in italics, the official wrote that “some of this information describes First Amendment-protected activities.” He added that, as part of its efforts to protect public safety, CPIC “will continue to communicate these events with other law enforcement partners.”
Under the police department’s rules, though, officers aren’t supposed to be investigating anyone for exercising their rights of free speech and assembly unless they have “reasonable suspicion” of a crime.
Even then, the police are required to fill out worksheets explaining the justification and scope of such “First Amendment-related” investigations. The worksheets must be approved by the department’s general counsel.
The police didn’t fill out any worksheets or seek legal approval before collecting and sharing the information on the Daley Center rally.
In fact, after hundreds took part in that August 2014 demonstration downtown, the police continued to gather and share information about other groups protesting police conduct, the internal records show.
Four days after that protest, several top Chicago Police Department officials exchanged messages on Aug. 18, 2014, about another Ferguson-inspired demonstration, expected to happen that evening.
“They are definitely taking a more antagonistic position,” Steven Caluris, who oversaw the joint crime-prevention center, wrote to David McNaughton — the police deputy chief of patrol — and others. “We will continue to monitor through the day.”
The same day, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, and then-Gov. Pat Quinn spoke out in support of people’s right to protest, and smaller demonstrations were held that afternoon and evening, without incident.
The police investigated protesters again in October 2014, after an officer reported finding that a flyer decrying police violence had been placed on the windshield of a parked patrol car. The handbill called for justice for Corey Harris, a 17-year-old star athlete shot and killed by police on the South Side in 2009. The city of Chicago settled a lawsuit filed by his family for $1.2 million in July 2014.
“Indict, Convict and Jail the killer cops,” read the flyer, produced by a group calling itself the Revolutionary Communist Party.
The officer’s report was forwarded to officials including McNaughton and Ralph Price, the police department’s general counsel.
Police at CPIC then gathered “open-source intelligence” on the communist group by scraping data available on the Internet. A CPIC report the next day highlighted an image officials said they’d found on the group’s website that called for “peace through revolution,” with an illustration of a figure about to throw a Molotov cocktail. Group leaders say the image didn’t come from their site.
There was no authorization from police lawyers to launch an investigation into Ferguson-related protesters until Nov. 7, 2014, after Caluris completed a First Amendment worksheet seeking legal approval to investigate the Revolution Club of Chicago — an affiliated Communist Party group — as well as three other organizations: the Black Rebels, the Black Panther Party and Anonymous.
Caluris argued that the groups should be monitored because they’d participated in protests in Ferguson that turned violent. Price signed off on the investigations the same day.
Over the next two months, Caluris sought and received authorization to expand the investigation to collect Internet data on dozens of other protest leaders and social media groups. The police also kept logs of a range of public events in November and December, including one of the weekly meetings of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH Coalition.
Grant Newburger, an organizer of the Revolution Club, says the police appeared to “target” him and other members of the group.
On Nov. 26, 2014, an officer accused Newburger of bumping him during another protest over Ferguson. Newburger was charged with two felony counts of aggravated battery to a peace officer.
Newburger says he was carrying a banner that read “Justice for Michael Brown” when he was pushed from behind. After his attorneys demanded to see records of all investigations and surveillance of the Communist Party, prosecutors dropped the aggravated battery charges. Newburger was left with a $10 ticket for obstructing traffic.
“The police were spying on people,” Newburger says. “And on this issue in particular, that’s outrageous.”
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says the department followed the law.
“The incidents which you reference are examples of what would precede the opening of a First Amendment investigation,” Guglielmi says. “These fact-finding efforts are permitted under departmental general orders in circumstances when information is publicly available, including on Internet sites and public spaces.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) says these revelations show why the police should be required to get authorization from outside the department — maybe a judge or the city’s corporation counsel — before investigating protesters.
“They say they’re gathering information from the Internet,” Waguespack says. “If they have time to look at that, I think they have time to take it through a larger process to get approval.”