​​​​​​​Local 24 Political Analyst & Commentator Otis Sanford On Ruling On MPD “Black List”

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It may have gone unnoticed by some, but a federal court ruling handed down late last week cast a highly unfavorable light on how the Memphis Police Department has been secretly keeping tabs on citizens. Local 24 political analyst and commentator Otis Sanford shares his point of view.

Essentially, the department was violating a 40-year-old consent decree by gathering political intelligence and conducting surveillance on community activists who were not breaking any laws.

Federal Judge Jon McCalla’s ruling outlined specific examples of how police basically spied on groups such as Black Lives Matter, and created a blacklist of law-abiding individuals who had to be watched or followed if they entered city hall. What’s more, police were using modern technology, including social media, to conduct covert surveillance.

All of this should be troubling to every Memphis resident. Of course, we should support valid law enforcement operations that are intended to protect the public from potential criminal activity. And I’ve said before that protesters should not have gone on to Mayor Jim Strickland’s private property to stage a so-called die-in on his front lawn in 2016. Some of those protesters even peered through the windows of Strickland’s home, which was threatening and amounted to trespassing.

But if everything outlined in McCalla’s ruling was a response to that incident, police clearly went too far, and ran roughshod over the first amendment. The 1978 consent decree involved improper surveillance of anti-war activists. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

Statement from Memphis Police Director Michael W. Rallings 8/14/2018:

In recent days, you may have seen news coverage or read the articles we posted on this website about the ACLU of Tennessee, Inc. vs. the City of Memphis lawsuit.

Our goal has been to be transparent about the issues involved in the case, which involves the interpretation of and effect of a 40-year-old consent decree. In fact, the only reason many of the articles were printed in the first place is because we voluntarily unsealed documents and posted them on the City website for the world to see.

I can’t speak at length about this case as it’s still in court. But I do feel compelled to explain a few things and talk about the path forward.

The terms “surveillance” and “spying” are being used in the media, but that’s erroneous. (In fact, those terms have never been used in the Court’s order.) Those words conjure up images of officers in unmarked vans on the street corner listening to tapped phone conversations. This does not accurately reflect MPD’s activities, or its motivation, regarding the monitoring of events which are the subject of this lawsuit.

Officers look at social media posts to help us gauge the size and intensity of demonstrations so that we can properly provide for public safety. This is also an effective tool in stopping criminal activity such as sexual predators, domestic violence, stalking, and threats. We also use other technology, such as body cameras, SkyCops, and security cameras in our law enforcement efforts to keep Memphians safe.

The reality is that the monitoring of social media posts and the usage of modern technology such as body cameras are considered to be best practices in policing nationwide. In fact, various media reports show that many other cities, such as Boston, Charlotte, Denver, Little Rock, San Jose, and Seattle, use social media monitoring. And the after-action recommendations following the Charlottesville riots last year said that monitoring social media was crucial to protecting public safety. The report cited inadequate social media monitoring as a contributing factor to law enforcement’s lack of preparation and response. See pages 167-168 of the report

But, because of actions taken in the 1970s, we are different than those other cities. In 1978, a federal court placed MPD under a consent decree to not engage in “political intelligence,” as defined by the consent decree. (Here’s a link to the decree.) We feel like we have been complying with the consent decree as it would apply to today’s world.

I urge you to think of the real-world application of this. Let’s say that Group A posts on social media that they’ll gather at Court Square at a certain time and place to demonstrate. And then let’s say that Group B sees that post, then shares it with its members to encourage them to gather to counter-demonstrate. That’s a potential flashpoint, and as we’ve seen in our country in recent years, events like these can cause mayhem and loss of life. 

We need to be able to read these posts and use them as part of our decisions about how we deploy resources, since we are responsible for the safety of all involved. Though MPD has been monitoring posts prior to my tenure as director, I have experienced its value.

These tools enabled me to ensure that the 2016 bridge protest was peaceful and without injury. Without these tools, I believe that night would have ended very differently.

We will, however, follow the judge’s order. So, if the judge says we can’t do that, we won’t. It’s my job to find a way to balance public safety with complying with the manner in which the Court interprets the consent decree.

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