Assessing RNC police tactics, part I

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The spying began late in the summer of 2007, after police in St. Paul discovered an amateur video online. It showed youths dressed in black, their faces covered with dark bandanas, tossing home-made fire bombs and seeming to prepare for an assault.

The group called itself the “RNC Welcoming Committee.”

For authorities in St. Paul, the whole thing seemed like serious business. The city was deep in preparations for the Republican National Convention, scheduled to take place in September of 2008. Security was their paramount concern, and nothing worse than a terrorist attack could happen during the four-day event.

In the year leading up to the convention, police would spend countless hours working to identify those behind the video and others who might be planning to disrupt the Republican Party’s nominating bash. They would draw on a new domestic intelligence infrastructure and take unprecedented advantage of laws expanded after 9/11 that give police more intrusive authorities to halt potential subversives and terrorists before they attack.

But far from yielding major revelations, some police work prior to and during the RNC resulted in a series of missteps, poor judgments, heavy-handed tactics, and inappropriate detentions, according to interviews and a review of official documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Critics say many of the police actions were unconstitutional and a judge called one seizure illegal after the fact. Law enforcement officials a year later continue to defend their handling of the convention, arguing it was the only way to keep extremist hoodlums from disrupting the RNC and prevent violent incidents.

Their coordinated security operations, known generally as intelligence-led policing, have become common in cities across the country. A growing number of law enforcement agencies are linking their computer networks together in a national, classified data system that enables the extraordinary mining and sharing of police intelligence, while also adopting spy methods to gather information.

In contrast to Bush administration officials who wanted to limit how much the federal government spent sustaining such state and local homeland security initiatives, President Obama’s proposed budget for 2010 asked that $260 million from existing antiterrorism grants be used to pay for thousands of new intelligence analyst positions.

The results of St. Paul’s campaign against political protesters raises serious questions about whether police are properly trained to use their new authorities for good effect.

Police deployed infiltrators to report on political groups, tapped into information exchanges to examine data about people who were not accused of any crimes, and conducted questionable searches based on intelligence.

One document revealed that a federally funded “fusion center” in Minnesota carried out “over 1,000 hours of support to intelligence operations” and “disseminated approximately 17 RNC situation reports to over 1,300 law enforcement recipients.”

Elsewhere, fusion centers in Iowa, Tennessee, Oregon, and South Dakota supplied Minnesota authorities with driver’s license photos and criminal history records on people perceived as suspicious in connection with the Republican convention.

By the convention’s end, more than 800 people had been arrested, including eight who were charged with “conspiracy to riot in the furtherance of terrorism.” But a majority of the charges, including several treated as serious, were later dropped or downgraded after prosecutors had a chance to review the police allegations and activity.

Actors on a video

Police in St. Paul set off on the wrong foot when they saw potential terrorism in the online video.

The actors did look dressed for street demonstrations. In one scene, a woman wields bolt cutters as if preparing to tear down a steel fence. Then she is shown standing outside a small Navy recruiting station with a bowling ball in her hands labeled “Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League,” a reference to political activists in the 1980s who gained modest notoriety by shattering the windows of an enlistment storefront in response to Ronald Reagan’s plans for invading Nicaragua with U.S. troops. Someone else in the video appears to throw rocks at people dressed as police officers attempting to control a riot.

“We’re getting ready,” the film says ominously. “What are you doing?”

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and his team would cite the video among other things in later warrant affidavits as a basis for his probe into the Welcoming Committee when police stormed the group’s headquarters just before the convention began as thousands of reporters and more Republican delegates converged on St. Paul.

But court affidavits ignored something crucial. The Molotov cocktail in the video is phony and lands in a barbecue grill lighting charcoals ablaze as an outdoor chef smiles thankfully. The bolt cutters are passed to another individual beyond the fence who uses them harmlessly as hedge clippers. The bowling ball rolls past the Navy recruiting station and into a group of pins assembled on the sidewalk. A youngster, 4 or 5 years old at most, is the only one seen throwing rocks in the video and they strike the ground rather than the actors.

The film was a juvenile satire of popular anarchist imagery, but police allowed their fear and enthusiasm for fighting terrorism to prevail. Within days of the video’s release on the Internet, Fletcher, alongside other law enforcement agencies, launched what became a $300,000 investigation into the RNC Welcoming Committee and other protest groups. Authorities later told a judge the film depicted “significant property damage” and “violence toward law enforcement.”

They said it provided reasonable suspicion that the RNC Welcoming Committee was conspiring to destroy property, create civil disorder, wreak havoc with bombs, and engage in “unlawful assembly,” all for the purposes of undermining the Republican National Convention.

But there wasn’t a consensus about the threat among officials in St. Paul and Minneapolis, or the need to conduct an open-ended intelligence effort. Police even quarreled over how many protesters would arrive. One document predicted 100,000 demonstrators planned to show up. Fletcher wrote to the St. Paul Police Department that inside the throngs there could be as many as 3,000 “anarchist-affiliated protesters.” The actual number was close to 10,000 total demonstrators, a fraction of them thugs intent on creating real trouble.

Expanded program

The proponents of intelligence-led policing won out despite disagreement. In the months leading to the convention, police expanded their program.

According to documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting from Minnesota’s fusion center, police from the Twin Cities asked their partners in the law enforcement community to collect information on where protesters were camping or renting land, snap photographs of their belongings and, if possible, seize supplies that might be used for “illegal direct actions.”

“One of their goals will be to attempt to create images of law enforcement personnel engaging them so they can claim brutality and violations of their civil rights,” a memo from the Minneapolis Police Department states about protesters. “They will likely attempt to use such incidents as a basis for future law suits against the city of Minneapolis.” The list of logistical items these direct-action groups might accumulate includes food that will “be as organic as possible,” and when they arrive their preferred method of transportation could be “older, low-value” bicycles.

Police in Minnesota downplay the reach of its fusion center. “Data mining doesn’t make any sense,” said center director and career police investigator Michael Bosacker in an interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting. “For us to just pick a person and start looking at him — unless it’s part of a case and raises suspicion of a crime — doesn’t make any sense. We don’t have the personnel to do that. We don’t have the time to do that.”

Instead the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center relied on “intelligence analysts” to disseminate memos to other law enforcement agencies advising them on what authorities anticipated would occur during the convention and how to respond.

Fletcher’s office, meanwhile, began a surveillance campaign of the Welcoming Committee, taking hundreds of photographs of political organizers, many of whom were not ultimately charged with anything illegal. Informants joined the group and fed police confidential but unverified information that became the basis of eventual search warrants and criminal charges.

They attended multiple protest planning meetings, including one in Lake Geneva, Minn., where attendees allegedly used water bottles as mock Molotov cocktails to practice throwing at vehicles and buildings. “Numerous” informants, according to police claims, told authorities of another meeting in Wisconsin where activists reviewed military training manuals and discussed slamming into lines of police with shields.

Two of the informants were women who worked for Fletcher’s department, one as a narcotics officer and the other as a jail guard. A third young man built like a high school wrestler with close-cropped hair was hired as an informant by Fletcher and later began working as a jail guard for the sheriff.

A fourth informant, Twin Cities resident Andrew Darst, reportedly provided information to the FBI but threatened to derail the government’s campaign against protesters when after the RNC he was arrested in an unrelated case. A local judge found him guilty of assault in March after he kicked down the door of a home in pursuit of his wife who was attending a party inside.

Efforts against planned protests grew — the FBI directed additional informants as far away as Texas to spy on those heading to St. Paul for the RNC. Documents show that confidential FBI sources infiltrated anti-war meetings at a public library in Iowa City during August of 2008. The height, weight, hair color, lisps, grooming habits, online activities, phone numbers, and e-mails of attendees were documented. Also in April of last year, according to published reports, an informant working for Ramsey County attended activist gatherings in Iowa.

Informants at meetings

Police infiltration and surveillance did not come as a total surprise to those involved in the Welcoming Committee’s planning get-togethers. They considered themselves essentially a logistical group but assumed authorities would misconstrue their intentions anyway.

Activist Rob Czernik, 34, grew up as an Army brat and moved frequently about the country before becoming politicized at age 13 by the sight of poverty and destructive mountain-top removal in West Virginia, he said recently. Czernik moved to the Twin Cities 11 years ago.

The Welcoming Committee’s meetings were public and anyone could attend. Two who did, Czernik sensed, were informants and he turned out to be right. “Just the way they acted and behaved,” Czernik said, “aloof and not really making an effort to understand the politics of what we were doing.”

Among the protesters, anxiety escalated as the convention neared. Rumors circulated that people were being stopped at the Canadian border.

This story is part one of two and was published by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Minnpost.com on Sept. 2, 2009. This account is based on in-depth interviews, news stories, and an extensive examination of police reports, available court records, and other public and government documents, including memos obtained from the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center through the state’s open-records laws.

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