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Former FBI Agent and ACLU Counsel: St. Paul Police Behavior Is ‘Frightening’

michael-german.thumbnail.JPGYesterday afternoon I caught up with my longtime acquaintance Michael German, the ACLU’s National Security Counsel. I first met German in the 1990s when he was an FBI agent, and I knew he would have some insights into the descent of St. Paul into a virtual police state.

Here’s our conversation:

DN: Mike, I assume you’ve been watching event in St. Paul closely. What are you seeing there?

German: I have been following the policy that has enabled this sort of activity. It just stuns me that it’s gotten to this level where they’re actually targeting iWitness Video, when they’re so clearly engaged in journalistic work, it just stuns me.

Do you find this kind of behavior unprofessional on the part of the police in St. Paul?

It’s hard for me to know, not being there. Clearly, they are spending a lot of effort on people who are not a threat. And there may be people there who are a threat, and if they focus their activities on those people and not on people who are simply wanting to go to a political convention wanting to have a say and to express themselves – you know, that is a wasted effort. It’s not going to help them find the people who are going to do bad things by impeding the rights of the people who are there to express themselves. And so much seems to be focused on people who are simply trying to have their say and document what happens.

The part that really bothers me is the focus on people who are simply documenting what is happening. That is troublesome, because there is guidance being published by the Los Angeles Police Department, which has since been endorsed by the Department of Justice, called “suspicious activity reporting,” that essentially endorses targeting anyone who would document police activity as potential terrorist threats. Let me read it to you:

It is the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department to make every effort to accurately and appropriately gather, record and analyze information, of a criminal or non-criminal nature, that could indicate activity or intentions related to either foreign or domestic terrorism.

Now, the idea that it would be the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department to collect information on non-criminal behavior is outrageous. They should be focused on people intending to do harm.

It lists 65 behaviors that they say are behaviors related to terrorism, and the one that pertains here is “takes pictures or video footage.” [The entry on p. 40 reads: “Takes pictures or video footage (with no apparent esthetic value, i.e., camera angles, security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.).”] “No apparent esthetic values?” So apparently they’re going to be sending police officers to art school to understand esthetic values.

But it actually mentions taking video footage of taking video footage of security personnel. So the mere taking of photographs or video footage of law enforcement – even law enforcement doing something improperly – they’ve identified that as a precursor to terrorism. So now you might understand why these police officers are focusing on people with cameras. It’s because it’s actual policy to do so.

It has the appearance of being very indiscriminate. They’re arresting legal observers, reporters, threatening to arrest kids, that sort of thing.

And the reporters are engaged in protected First Amendment activities. For the police to be impeding their ability to do their job is ridiculous.

When there are things for them to look at – you know, there are reports of people breaking windows, that sort of thing – sure, go chase those guys. You don’t have to have all these police on the street impeding activities of people who are just engaged in free expression. Spraying pepper spray into a crowd of people who are simply trying to get out of the way of police is not an effective way of policy.

What about the raids that took place Sunday? These were strictly preemptive raids, and they used some warrants that seemed questionable at best. Have you gotten a look at that?

I’ve just seen what’s been reported. And just from what’s been reported, it’s a mess – it was reported that one of the warrants even had the wrong address. Which kind of shows the level of unprofessionalism that you’re dealing with there. Again, it’s hard for me to say, not knowing exactly what’s there, but I understand that items to be seized included cameras and cell phones. That seems pretty outrageous – journals and things like that are being seized.

I would imagine from the ACLU’s point of view that that’s treading well over into areas of free speech.

Right. And the frustrating thing about it is that, like, the New York Police Department just paid over $2 million for the events surrounding the Republican National Convention four years ago to the protesters they arrested there. I don’t understand what it is that the police just don’t get – that impeding the rights of the people is not an appropriate way of stopping bad things from happening.

I don’t pretend that there aren’t people out there who have bad intentions on their minds. But if you can’t distinguish someone whose program is about videotaping protests as opposed to somebody whose program is going out and lighting things on fire, that’s problematic for the rest of us. Because if the police aren’t distinguishing between those two in their use of force, then none of us are safe.

To somebody observing it from the outside, it looks like something that would take place in a Banana Republic – the police using thuggish tactics, threatening and intimidating ordinary citizens. Ripping the press credentials off of Amy Goodman. It’s just outrageous.

And then there’s the excessive force in these raids, where you’re going in with machine guns. Police have a right to defend themselves, but the idea that you’re going in with that much firepower in a situation where there’s nothing to suppose that that sort of thing would be necessary — it’s frightening. It’s not what policing is all about. It’s a military raid, it’s not a police action.

But it is very police-state like, which is the most troubling aspect of it all.

Right. And you know, so much of it too – in the last number of years there has been an excessive of SWAT teams to service warrants where there really is not an expectation of hostility. It’s been well documented. And just the uniforms these police wear, where they’re increasingly looking like military uniforms rather than the peace officer on the street serving the community.

It’s the professionalization of the police on steroids. With the’ roid rage.

The idea that just because someone is pointing a camera at you, you have the right to take the camera away or destroy the film or the tape – which is something we’ve had documented – you know, that’s not part of policing. That they would feel they have the power to do that is troubling.

And again, with this type of order going out, and being endorsed by the Justice Department, is even more troubling.

You mentioned the $2 million paid out by the NYPD. And the other lesson of that is that these kinds of actions can be very costly for the civic entities that are responsible for them happening. At some point you would think the city of St. Paul would rein this kind of stuff in because they may be facing a big fat bill at the end of this road.

It’s interesting. We’ve seen this all over. We’ve seen it recently in Maryland, where the Maryland State Police were spying on antiwar and anti-death penalty groups, where the law enforcement agencies aren’t able to distinguish between what is a real threat and what isn’t. It’s not just the invasion of privacy and civil liberties, but what a complete waste of resources. And now the scandal has played out, and I’m sure it’s taken quite a portion of the leadership of the Maryland State Police. I’m sure if you asked them now whether it was worth it, investigating this peaceful group so you have this intelligence collected about them, and that intelligence itself showed that they were not doing anything improper, was worthwhile, I’m sure they would say, ‘No, I wish we could do it all over and not do this sort of stuff.’

Yet one police department does not seem to learn from the mistakes of another. Quite the contrary, they learn the techniques, but they don’t learn the ultimate costs.

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David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. He also is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000.