When the Cops Only Saw Red
Lurking behind the effort to revitalize local police intelligence is a nasty skeleton in the closet--the legacy of the old "Red Squads." While most attention to illegal spying in the 1960s and 1970s centers on infamous federal programs like the FBI's COINTELPRO and the CIA's Operation Chaos, many of the worst abuses went on at the local level. Originally formed to surveil and root out Communists, the Red Squads were ubiquitous by the 1960s, reaching into city and state police departments nationwide: New York City had its Special Services Division, Los Angeles its Public Disorder Intelligence Division, and Chicago its Subversive Activities Unit.
Starting in the 1970s, lawsuits and grand jury investigations uncovered all kinds of abuse by these units: illegal spying, burglaries, beatings, unwarranted raids, the spreading of disinformation. Americans engaged in constitutionally protected free speech were routinely photographed, wiretapped, and harassed--all in the name of national security. In Memphis, the police department spied on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and gathered data on political activists' bank accounts, phone records, and close associates. In New Haven, Conn., police wiretapped over a thousand people. In Philadelphia, then police chief Frank Rizzo boasted of holding files on 18,000 people. The list of "subversives" grew to include the League of Woman Voters, civil rights groups, religious figures, and politicians running for office. Ultimately, at least 30 lawsuits were filed against cities and states, charging that the spying and dirty tricks had violated Americans' civil rights. In response, some cities simply shut the units down, while others imposed tough new guidelines.
Civil liberties watchdogs and even some veteran cops worry that police will be tempted to resume political spying. But intelligence officers argue that no one in police management today wants to go back to the bad old days. "We've been beaten up pretty good over bad intelligence decisions that were made in the '60s and '70s, and we've learned from that," says Illinois State Police Col. Kenneth Bouche, chair of a federal advisory body on information sharing. He and others point out that in some cases state laws are even more stringent than those at the federal level. California, for example, includes a right to privacy in its Constitution--something not spelled out in the federal Bill of Rights.
Police intelligence expert David Carter says the lawsuits over police spying have had a major impact. "I've seen a radical difference in terms of awareness," he notes. "There's probably greater concern by local authorities on civil rights than by federal ones, because it can touch them more directly through citizen complaints and lawsuits. There's more accountability at the local level." But even Carter, who has trained thousands of police, is sobered by what he hears in the field. "There's a little bit of paranoia out there," he concedes. "It stems from a lack of sophistication in understanding what the threats are." At each of his trainings, he says, at least one cop approaches him with some truly worrisome idea. "It's amazing the number," he adds. "These are well intentioned people, but they just don't know the regulations."
This story appears in the May 8, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.