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Phila. police admit spying on activists

by Mainstream Press Article By Thomas Ginsberg a Saturday, Jul. 22, 2000 at 4:00 AM

A spokeswoman had denied officers watched meetings as the convention neared. A car registration gave them away.

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

comment."

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.

Constitution.

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

protest groups.

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

violence.

"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

31.

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

Philadelphia police.

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.

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