The revelation that Chicago police didn’t follow their own procedures when they opened an investigation into the Black Lives Matter movement is raising renewed concerns over police spying on political activity here.

As protests mounted last year over the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo.,  police officer, the Chicago Police Department began gathering intelligence on several local groups without seeking authorization from department lawyers, as required in investigations into First Amendment-related activity, according to a Chicago Sun-Times story by Mick Dumke.

It’s the latest irregularity in CPD’s political spying program, and along with new technology vastly expanding the city’s surveillance capacity, it highlights the problem with leaving oversight up to the department itself.

The Black Lives Matter investigation—which was expanded to include three dozen organizations, including the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition—was the most recent of six investigations of protest groups initiated since 2009, according to Dumke. (In addition, Truthout has reported that a Chicago officer infiltrated a 2012 protest against school closings.)

An investigation of opponents of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s campaign to host the 2016 Olympics was opened in March of 2009. That was three months before a federal judge lifted a 1981 court order which, in its original form, restricted CPD investigations into protest groups to cases where there was a “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” (That restriction was lifted in 2002.)

The investigation into No Games Chicago, and several other investigations, would have violated the original order.

Indeed, it’s known that the police department violated the court order several times while it was in full force. The department was sanctioned for filming a 1982 nuclear freeze rally featuring then-U.S. Rep. Harold Washington, just a year after the order was entered. In 1996 CPD was sued for seizing documents and videotape and breaking cameras when it raided the office of protesters at the Democratic National Convention. In 2002 police spied on the American Friends Service Committee as it planned to protest an international trade conference in Chicago; AFSC sued, and nine years later the city apologized as part of a settlement.

When it comes to political investigations, this police department seems to have trouble following the law.

According to Michael Deutsch of the Peoples Law Office, which has long represented political dissidents, the kind of spying the police are now doing is exactly what was found unconstitutional in the Red Squad case.

Founded in the 1880s and disbanded in 1975, the Red Squad investigated radicals, reformers, labor unions, civil rights groups, and by the 1960s, any critic of Mayor Richard J. Daley, even the League of Women Voters.  Its tactics ranged from surveillance to intimidation and physical attacks to outright subversion of organizations.

The new version of the Red Squad has similar issues, sweeping up eminently nonviolent groups and going way beyond intelligence collection, including the use of agents provocateurs in the NATO 3 case.

“It’s a matter of concern anytime groups raising legitimate, important issues are singled out for investigation and infiltration because of their opposition to government policies,” said Ed Yohnka of ACLU of Illinois. He notes that “across the country police groups and governmental bodies seem to be focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement for special attention and investigation. Is it happening because these groups are questioning the use of police authority?”

Four years ago, as Mayor Emanuel was coming into office, the ACLU proposed an ordinance that would restore the “reasonable suspicion” standard for First Amendment-related investigations, arguing current policies “allow fishing expeditions without a criminal predicate,” Yohnka said. “The city wasn’t responsive.”

Now Ald. Scott Waguespack has introduced a resolution calling for City Council hearings on the question. “The use of police resources to survey law-abiding citizens based on their exercise of free speech and assembly is in violation of the U.S. Constitution,” the resolution asserts. Whether the hearing takes place is up to the mayor.

New technology makes the issue more urgent. In 2011 the ACLU called for an ordinance governing the use by police of the city’s vast surveillance camera network, reportedly the most extensive in the nation. The group called for a moratorium on new cameras, as well as guidelines restricting their use in public protests and governing the use of facial recognition and automatic tracking technology.

Instead, Emanuel has increased the network’s scope, with no safeguards or oversight. An ordinance updating regulations for street protests passed prior to the NATO summit gave the mayor complete authority to purchase and deploy an unlimited number of surveillance cameras without seeking approval or appropriations from the City Council. Today there are over 20,000 spy cameras, including private-sector cameras that are part of the network.

Meanwhile a local activist is suing the city and CPD for information on its use of Stingray technology, which forces cellphones in a general area to reveal their subscriber ID numbers.  With additional software, the device can capture call logs from every phone within its reach and even listen in on conversations, said Matthew Topic, attorney for the plaintiff. He described departmental procedures governing its use as lax and outdated. Arguments will be heard in the case on Monday.

Another concern is CPD’s “fusion center,” the Crime Prevention Information Center. That’s where information about individuals and groups—including images from surveillance cameras—is stored and shared with other agencies. CPIC is charged with monitoring “any significant or newsworthy event occurring within the city,” including “strikes, labor-management incidents or union controversies.”

Such centers “raise profound privacy and free-speech concerns,” the ACLU has argued, by extending the potential impact of improper political spying. The group has proposed using the “reasonable suspicion” standard to limit information stored at CPIC.

That’s a good idea. Perhaps it’s time to make Chicago safe for democracy.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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