The Chicago Police Department has routinely spied on activist groups during the past six years, police records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show — including union members, anti-Olympics protesters, anarchists, the Occupy movement, NATO demonstrators and critics of the Chinese government.
And it has continued to do so, according to the records, which have never previously been made public and which the police department fought to withhold.
Under the department’s rules, cops aren’t allowed to purposely interfere with people exercising their free-speech rights. In recent years, though, department officials have repeatedly justified spying on protesters by saying they fear they might engage in “disorder” and “civil disobedience.”
One investigation involving the surveillance of protest groups is still underway, 10 months after it was launched, the records show. The police won’t say who is being investigated or discuss the methods being used.
“There’s something deeply disturbing about monitoring and documenting the exercise of First Amendment rights,” says Molly Armour, an attorney who has represented protesters investigated by the police. “Surveillance stifles dissent. And that’s dangerous for all of us.”
Department officials say the police follow “stringent policy and protocol” to protect both public safety and free speech.
“We understand and appreciate the concerns raised, which is why this action is done in extremely limited circumstances and, even then, only to the extent they are necessary and in a manner that minimizes their impact,” chief police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says. “Once approved, continual monitoring, documentation and time limits are in place to safeguard constitutional rights.”
For decades, the Chicago Police Department had a unit known as the Red Squad that spied on anarchists, civil rights organizations, antiwar activists and critics of the political establishment, often using illegal tactics to infiltrate and disrupt the groups’ activities. The unit was disbanded in the 1980s, and a federal court decree required the department to set up new rules to safeguard citizen rights.
But the police still are allowed to gather information on demonstrators as long as they establish a “reasonable law enforcement purpose.” That broad standard has been interpreted by the department as including efforts to prevent future crimes, even when there’s no evidence any law has been broken yet.
Such inquires are formally known as “investigations into First Amendment-related information.” Each one has to be approved by the police department’s top lawyer.
Officials previously acknowledged that the police department has conducted surveillance of protest groups but refused to provide details of the investigations, including their targets and the methods used.
In July, the Illinois attorney general’s office issued an opinion saying “worksheets” — outlining the scope of these investigations — are public records under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The office ordered the police department to “promptly produce unredacted copies of the worksheets.”
It took nearly two months for the department to comply with the ruling and release those records.
Those records show that, since 2009, the police have opened six investigations into protest groups:
• In March 2009, about three weeks before representatives of the International Olympic Committee visited Chicago, the police began keeping tabs on a group calling itself No Games Chicago. The organization opposed the city’s bid under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Outlining the reasons for the investigation, police officials wrote that in other cities, “The Olympic Committee and Olympic Games have been targeted by unlawful acts such as disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.”
They said it was necessary to use undercover officers because “groups and individuals are becoming increasingly hesitant to post information on websites due to the fact that they are aware of possible monitoring by law enforcement.”
Bob Quellos, one of the founders of No Games Chicago, says he believes he met two undercover officers at one of the group’s meetings.
“They were there early, they were bulky guys, and they just didn’t fit the activist profile,” Quellos says.
He says they didn’t speak during the meeting, and he didn’t see them again.
“It’s disturbing that this fits within the law,” Quellos says. “There was nothing nefarious about what we were doing. Our meetings were completely open and public.”
• In October 2009, officials decided to send undercover cops to a rally against foreclosures and predatory lending that was organized by the Service Employees International Union, a major contributor to Democratic political campaigns. The event was planned to coincide with a meeting of the American Bankers Association at the Sheraton Hotel downtown.
“Through open-source reporting it is believed that anarchists will be attending the SEIU event,” police officials wrote.
They said undercover officers could help look for “suspicious” bags or people “committing or about to commit acts of civil disobedience or criminal acts.”
The protesters ended up carrying effigies of bank leaders to the offices of Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo before demonstrating outside the Sheraton, where they were addressed by U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois.
The police closed their investigation that afternoon.
Jerry Morrison, assistant to the president of SEIU Local 1, says he was “a little surprised” to learn that undercover cops were at the rally, because the union had worked with the police during preparations for it.
“I don’t know why it was necessary,” says Morrison, who helped organize the rally. “They know who we are.”
• In January 2011, a day before Chinese president Hu Jintao came to Chicago, police lawyers signed off on the use of undercover officers to watch for protesters. They cited Free Tibet activists as a particular concern, saying, “There is a likelihood that these groups will again come together and demonstrate against the visit of the president of China.”
The investigation was closed after Hu left the city on Jan. 21.
• By mid-October 2011, police officials decided they needed to keep closer tabs on the Occupy movement, whose protests had spread from their New York origins with Occupy Wall Street.
“Members of violent anarchist groups who have been attributed with unlawful activity in the past [may] attend meetings,” officials wrote.
The police department’s top lawyer, Ralph Price, signed off on using undercover cops and other surveillance methods, including monitoring websites, collecting fliers and pamphlets and going through protesters’ trash.
The Occupy investigation was opened that Oct. 14. Two days later, police arrested nearly 200 Occupy activists camping out in Grant Park. Over the following weeks, Occupy participants grew accustomed to seeing uniformed police near their events and assumed infiltrators were around.
“The work we did do was only possible with an open environment that left us vulnerable,” says David Orlikoff, an organizer for the movement.
The department kept the Occupy investigation open for more than three months, until the protests tapered off.
• On Sept. 27, 2011, the police department opened an investigation into unspecified groups planning to demonstrate during the NATO summit to be held in Chicago the following May. In their worksheet proposing surveillance, officials wrote that protests during international meetings in other cities had turned violent because of “anarchist infiltrators.”
Price approved the use of undercover officers — including at least two who infiltrated activist groups. The work of “Mo” and “Gloves,” as the undercover cops were known, led to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez charging three men with plotting terrorist acts shortly before the summit. The three were arrested before carrying out any of the acts to disrupt the summit they discussed with the officers.
In recordings played during their 2014 trial, the officers frequently appeared to be encouraging the men.
A jury acquitted the so-called NATO 3 of terrorism charges but convicted them of mob action and making a Molotov cocktail.
• Last Nov. 7, Price authorized another investigation that involved monitoring a public gathering and collecting intelligence.
The police department won’t disclose any other details. The copy of the worksheet it provided to the Sun-Times is almost entirely blacked out because, after 10 months, the investigation is still “pending,” according to a department spokeswoman.