Published on Friday, August 18, 2000 in the Chicago Tribune
Infiltrators Kept LAPD In The Know
by Beth Shuster of the Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Police Department calls them "scouts," and they are so good
at their job that, during this week's protests, some were shot at and others
were arrested--by their own colleagues.
The LAPD undercover officers assigned to join the crowds of demonstrators drawn by the Democratic National Convention are a young, purposefully rag-tag group that has blended easily and invisibly into the sea of young protesters.
Throughout the week, they have provided a key element in the police intelligence gathering network, as they circulated unnoticed within crowds across the city.
The LAPD's undercover operation was "an extremely critical part of the [department's] plan," said Cmdr. Tom Lorenzen, who oversees the Police Department's convention planning unit. "Without good intelligence, we would not be as efficient as we are."
One morning this week, some of these undercover officers met before going out on the streets in their work clothes: T-shirts and shorts, bandannas, flip-flops and sneakers. They are allowed to break department policy by wearing beards and keeping their hair long. One even wore a "Free Mumia" bandanna.
When asked if they were worried about getting swept up in trouble, they shrugged. It's all in a day's work for these officers. One, however, said, smiling, that he was a little worried about being shot "by one of those," pointing to fellow officers in uniform checking out shotguns.
In fact, a few were shot at by their colleagues using stinger rounds and bean bag projectiles during Monday's melee in which hundreds of police attempted to move the large crowd that lingered after a concert by the rock group Rage Against the Machine, police sources said. A day later, a couple of these undercover officers were arrested in a bicycle protest in which about 100 cyclists tried to block city streets, these sources said.
The arrests of 42 animal-rights activists Tuesday, allegedly while in possession of materials authorities said could be made into homemade flame throwers, came from information supplied by undercover officers, police said Thursday.
Federal and other local agencies also had undercover officers working inside the demonstrations this week, police sources said.
But the LAPD has a particularly long and rich history of spying on political dissenters dating back to the "Red Squad" of the 1930s that regularly broke up union and leftist meetings, hustling protesters to jail. Then, in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was learned that officers from the Public Disorder Intelligence Division had infiltrated left-wing groups and that others had spied on local politicians and critics of the department.
Because of the LAPD's dubious history of political spying, this week's activities have lead some to wonder whether the officers are observers or provocateurs.
"The concern always is the chilling effect it would have on protected speech activities," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at University of Southern California. "Even if we're doing nothing wrong as a group we still might talk differently if we know there is an uninvited police officer among us."
Lisa Fithian, an organizer with D2KLA and the Direct Action Network, said members of her group saw people dressed as protesters sitting in a police car after last Sunday's anti-police rally.
"It's standard operating procedure: infiltrate and disrupt," Fithian said. "They are potentially trying to incite problems in the midst of our demonstrations. We're not doing anything illegal, we're not doing anything wrong. The question is do they create problems in the midst of our meetings or actions?"
LAPD officials say the information gathered this week was invaluable. And the use of technology such as cell phones has vastly improved the undercover operation.
That intelligence has improved the department's ability to more quickly move officers to specific areas of trouble, officials said.
Copyright LA Times