Reversing an earlier denial, the Philadelphia Police Department admitted
yesterday that its officers conducted surveillance at private meetings of
activists planning protests at the Republican convention.
The department earlier this month flatly denied that police were watching and
photographing activists. Lt. Susan Slawson, the force's spokeswoman, said in
an interview published July 6 that any such activity would violate formal
curbs on police intelligence-gathering "and we are in no way violating it."
Yesterday, the department acknowledged plainclothes Philadelphia police
officers had been photographing protesters. "It is our people," Slawson said.
She made the admission after The Inquirer informed department officials that
car-registration records showed that a car used during one surveillance was
owned by the force.
Slawson said Police Commissioner John F. Timoney was not available to comment
on the reversal. Slawson took the blame entirely upon herself for the
incorrect information provided earlier this month.
"I spoke prematurely," she said. "I wasn't aware that we were doing
surveillance. Everybody else knew. I didn't check into it before I made the
Slawson's denial was widely reported at the time. Neither Timoney, Deputy
Commissioner Robert Mitchell, who is heading security for the convention, nor
any other senior police official publicly corrected Slawson's denial.
In another shift, Slawson yesterday abandoned her previous statement that
surveillance would violate a 1987 court settlement. The settlement came after
police were sued for posing as civilians to get inside protest planning
sessions for that year's celebration of the 200th anniversary of the U.S.
The department's new view, she said, is that the 1987 pact banned
infiltration of protest groups, not watching them or taking pictures.
"I read the order wrong," Slawson said.
Stefan Presser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of
Pennsylvania, which monitors police adherence to the 1987 directive,
yesterday endorsed the department's latest interpretation.
Presser agreed that the order applied only to undercover infiltration of
Slawson, commander of the Police Public Affairs unit, declined yesterday to
say whether the surveillance was still going on, who authorized it, or
whether it was targeted at people thought to be planning disruptions or
"We won't get into any of our intelligence operations," Lt. Slawson said.
While apparently lawful, the police surveillance - and the fact that nobody
took responsibility for it - contributed to tension between police and
activists over planned protests at the four-day GOP convention, starting July
Throughout June, activists from several groups reported at least five
instances in which unidentified men were seen watching and photographing
people entering and leaving protest meetings.
In one instance, on June 29, an Inquirer reporter observed two men dressed in
casual clothes, with one carrying a Nikon camera, watching activists arrive
for a meeting at the offices of the leftist group Women's International
League for Peace and Freedom.
The pair at times sat on the hood of a maroon Plymouth, a car The Inquirer
has learned was registered to the department.
Both men calmly refused to answer any questions posed by an Inquirer reporter
and later by several activists. "I got no beef with them," one of the men
said when asked about the demonstrators.
Yesterday's admission by the department prompted a mixture of scorn and
disdain from protest organizers.
"This is just outrageous," said Michael Morrill, an organizer of a large
rally on July 30 called Unity 2000. "If this is in fact going on, and city
officials are lying about it, I wonder what else they're doing."
"We're taking it in stride now," said Amy Kwasnicki, a member of the
Philadelphia Direct Action Group, an umbrella group for protesters. "Whatever
is going to happen is going to happen."
The Direct Action Group is coordinating three days of protests and civil
disobedience during the convention, including undisclosed actions for which
protesters are preparing to be arrested. They have pledged not to be violent.
Asked yesterday about the reasons for the surveillance, Slawson said only:
"Just because we are getting information about people who are going to be
part of the demonstrations here doesn't mean we believe they in particular
are going to be in any way disruptive or violent."
The surveillance is not the only picture-taking controversy now involving the
A New York City-based civil-rights group complained last week, in a letter to
New York police, that a Philadelphia police officer photographed
demonstrators during a May 1 rally in Manhattan.
Philadelphia commanders have confirmed that officers traveled to New York
City for May 1 rallies, as well as to demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and
Seattle as part of intelligence-gathering for the GOP convention.
Slawson yesterday refused to say whether Philadelphia police had, in fact,
photographed protesters in New York.
New York police are forbidden to photograph demonstrators under a 1985
consent decree. The Center for Constitutional Rights, citing that decree,
said in its letter of complaint that it might sue New York police for
collaborating with Philadelphia officers in the surveillance. It's not clear
whether the decree would cover Philadelphia police.