Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings found himself in a much different place Tuesday, defending his department’s practices under oath in court.
Director Rallings’ testimony is part of a federal case pitting the American Civil Liberties Union against the city of Memphis in how it monitored prominent activists online.
A federal judge recently ruled the city violated a 1978 consent decree which banned the “gathering of political intelligence,” but wants to hear from both sides before ordering new rules.
Director Rallings and city of Memphis leaders said they’ll comply with whatever the judge orders but worry it will impact MPD’s abilities to assess online threats to people and property and protect the public.
Director Rallings’ testimony started just before 5:00 p.m. Tuesday and will pick up again Wednesday morning, but he told attorneys the online monitoring of demonstrators helped officers prepare ahead of time for gatherings with patience and restraint, and not with riot gear.
Rallings’ testimony followed hours on the stand by MPD Sergeant Tim Reynolds and Major Stephen Chandler. Reynolds outlined instances starting in 2016 when he “catfished” prominent Memphis activists through an alias Facebook page ‘Bob Smith.’
Through that social media infiltration, Sergeant Reynolds said he alerted MPD leaders beforehand of un-permitted disturbances and gatherings at the Overton Park Greensward, Graceland, and even talks by demonstrators of hacking the Memphis Zoo computer system in 2016. The monitoring also extended to counter out-of-state white supremacists during Confederate statue protests in 2017.
Sergeant Reynolds told attorneys such undercover social media monitoring wasn’t political intelligence, but public safety.
Major Chandler also confirmed the use of videos and images to track certain activists leading up to and during demonstrations.
MPD and other city leaders stand by their actions, despite the judge’s initial ruling.
“What you see is what happened in Charlottesville. They didn’t have any kind of knowledge from using social media and that was a horrible situation that happened there. We don’t want to see that type of thing happen in Memphis and we are trying to do what we can to prevent that,” said Ursula Madden with the City of Memphis.
“There’s been no spying here, there’s been monitoring of social media,” Madden continued. “This is regular, standard police procedure. More than 150 law enforcement agencies across the country use this exact type of procedure to monitor social media.”
This federal case is expected to take most of the week. ACLU leaders want the judge to order court monitoring of MPD, while city leaders want the 1978 consent decree to be changed and clarified for modern issues such as social media and the internet.
Demonstrators, some who will also testify, declined comment until this federal case wraps up later this week.