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  • Report from the Field:The Denver Spy Files
  • Mark Cohen (bio)

In March 2002, it was revealed that for decades the Denver Police Department (DPD) Intelligence Bureau had been conducting surveillance and keeping criminal intelligence files on activists engaged in constitutionally protected expressive activities. These files recorded, among other things, membership in organizations, attendance at demonstrations, expressed opinions, car license numbers, vehicle descriptions, physical descriptions of individuals, and addresses of private residences. While labeling groups and individuals as criminal and attaching the label criminal extremist to some files, the bureau recorded no facts connected with criminal activity.

Among the organizations labeled as criminal extremist were the American Friends Service Committee and Amnesty International, both past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.1 Sister Antonia Anthony was identified not as a Franciscan nun but as an active protestor with the Chiapas Coalition; in turn, the Chiapas Coalition, whose purpose is to support the legitimate struggles of indigenous people in Mexico, was falsely described as a criminal extremist group "dedicated to [the] overthrow of [End Page 95] [the] Mexican government" (Chiapas Coalition Entry 2000). Other files revealed that the Denver police had been notified by the FBI of a plan to assassinate two leaders of the American Indian Movement of Colorado. Ultimately, the plan was not acted upon, but in the meantime the targets were not informed, and apparently no preventative measures were taken.2

The city eventually admitted the existence of some 3,200 files on individuals and 208 on organizations, most compiled since 1999 but containing information dating back to 1972 (Ensslin 2002). These figures were later revealed to be a small fraction of the total. With few exceptions, none of these files contained any evidence of criminal activity. It was also later revealed that DPD had shared some of these files with a number of other law enforcement agencies. At the end of March, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Colorado filed a class action lawsuit against the city on behalf of three individuals and three organizations (representing a larger class) known to have spy files (American Friends Service Comm. v. City and County of Denver). A settlement agreement was reached on April 17, 2003. The main achievement was the creation of a new intelligence policy for DPD, which among other provisions explicitly forbids the department from conducting surveillance and maintaining files on activists without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The agreement also provided for the creation of an independent auditor to monitor DPD adherence to the new policy (Settlement Agreement, Exhibit 1 2003).

A matter unresolved by the settlement agreement was the final disposition of the spy files. The administration of Denver Mayor Wellington Webb had intended to destroy the files, presumably to avoid further political embarrassment. Among other issues, this was problematic because the spy files contained significantly inaccurate information on those surveilled, information that had already been disseminated to numerous other law enforcement agencies.3 If the original DPD files were destroyed, these misrepresentations would remain in various governmental databases, but evidence of the source and the illegal manner in which the information had been gathered would be unavailable. Denver's new mayor, John Hickenlooper, agreed to preserve the files for historical purposes, and the Denver Public Library agreed to become the repository for the files. Once [End Page 96] they have been archived and indexed, subjects of files will have a year to obtain a copy of their own files. After that time, the files will be restricted for 50 years, at which time they will be available to historians and other researchers (ACLU Press Release 2004b).

Another issue raised but not addressed by the agreement was Denver's participation in the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). The ACLU and plaintiffs questioned whether the two DPD officers assigned to work with the JTTF would be bound by the DPD's intelligence policy or whether federal standards might be used to allow those officers to circumvent the Denver policy's stricter standards. Chief of Police Gerald Whitman stated that the officers would be bound by DPD policy. However, the city attorney at the time stated that they would not (ACLU Press Release...


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pp. 95-101
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