Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has yet another controversy on his hands. The embattled mayor has been under a steady stream of criticism lately over police shootings (some of which were clearly unwarranted), city budget problems and election challenges from his own left flank. So what is it this time? Oddly enough, the media has been going through reams of released police force documents and discovered that some of his cops were “spying” on meetings of protesters. (Chicago Sun Times)

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel faced growing criticism last fall over the city’s handling of police shootings, Chicago Police Department officials laid plans to have undercover officers spy on protest groups, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

The police department already had been monitoring the actions and online postings of protest groups in the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of a black teenager by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri.

Then, in October, the records show Ralph Price, the police department’s top lawyer, signed off on a plan to send undercover cops to “monitor” meetings of four additional groups. They included Black Lives Matter activists, as well as churches and philanthropic organizations.

Reading through the list of offenses cited by the press, it’s really not clear precisely what the allegations entail. There are a few groups on that list (which stretches back quite a few years) which probably gave the cops pause and reason to keep tabs on them. Most of them were organizations who were planning and engaging in demonstrations against the government, police or other high profile groups such as NATO. These are valid expressions of free speech, but after the activities in Ferguson, Baltimore and other urban centers, if the cops weren’t prepared for the potential of riots, arson and looting it could easily have been viewed as criminal negligence. Of course, that depends on whether or not they were following the law while gathering information, and that’s where the discussion needs to be focused.

Gathering information is handled in a variety of ways, each requiring different levels of paperwork. It doesn’t sound like they were tapping phones, seizing documents or raiding businesses and residences without a warrant. The “spying” in question consisted of having undercover cops show up at meetings of protest groups and keeping their ears open. While I can see how that would put some folks off, if the observations aren’t being used as part of a criminal case and the meetings were held in public locations (or were at least open to the public), it’s unclear what law is being broken here.

Further, it wasn’t just the Black Lives Matter movement and their related groups who were under scrutiny. In fact the protesters ran the gamut of demographics and interests.

The Sun-Times previously has reported that, over the past seven years, the police have spied on anti-Olympics protesters, the Service Employees International Union, critics of the visiting Chinese premier, the Occupy movement and NATO Summit demonstrators.

Also, in late 2014 and early 2015, following nationwide protests over the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, the police here monitored black demonstrators and kept logs of events led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other groups.

There’s definitely an element of an “enemies list” going on here and it’s clearly going to draw some public backlash, but were these actionable offenses? The details contained in these documents seem to indicate that this was an official policy of the department and even included a review process conducted by their legal department. (One request to infiltrate a group planning to protest NATO was denied by department lawyers.)

This is probably the last thing Rahm needed on top of the rest of his problems and the Chicago PD was already in enough trouble. But unless this “spying” was actually in violation of the law there might be a lot more smoke than fire here.

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