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Big Brother in Blue : PROTECTORS OF PRIVILEGE: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America, By Frank Donner (University of California Press: $34.95; 496 pp.)

January 20, 1991|Bill Boyarsky | Boyarsky is a Los Angeles Times columnist

With the Soviet Union now a friend and the "International Communist Conspiracy" in shambles, the idea of an American police department having a "Red Squad" seems like a waste of money.

Not to the police. The cops love these free-wheeling, elite units. They were ostensibly created to combat terrorism, but have been used mostly to infiltrate and suppress liberal and radical political organizations and civil rights groups. They lift their members out of the routine of police work into something of a James Bond life. As Frank Donner points out in this excellently researched, thoughtful and well-detailed study of police spying, their excesses have been many. But Donner, who directed the American Civil Liberties Project on Political Surveillance, concludes with the chilling thought that the Red squads will be around long after there are any Reds.

Why wouldn't the police like them? The elite Red squads work on their own, usually reporting directly to the chief, operating outside normal department procedures. That's dangerous. Even worse, the squads are concerned more with political attitudes than with crime.

Their targets are chosen according to the narrow, conservative political views of the police and usually are selected in a Keystone Cop fashion. Among the Los Angeles Public Disorder and Intelligence Division (PDID) targets, for example, was the organization advocating help for Soviet Jewry. This was an anti-Kremlin movement, but the intricacies of that obviously were too much for the PDID.

Worse yet, the information, and misinformation, gathered by these sleuths is fed into the growing number of intelligence networks maintained by federal, state and local law-enforcement organizations. In the computer age, if you attend a left-wing meeting in Echo Park, your name is likely to be spread as far as New York.

As Donner points out, the squads are not a recent invention. One of his most important contributions is tracing the history of the Red squads, showing how deeply rooted they are in American political, social and economic life.

They've been with us long before the Soviet Union. In fact, police spying started when the conservative business and political Establishment began fearing revolution in the new American industrial cities after the Paris Commune uprising in 1871.

The first real Red squad was created in Chicago after a bomb was thrown during a meeting of striking McCormack Harvester workers at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886. Seven policemen were killed and 70 were injured. "In the subsequent tide of fear and hysteria, Capt. Michael J. Schaack, a fiery foe of trade unionists and anarchists who were prominently involved in the protest, led a witch-hunt and roundup, not only of radicals but also of individuals indentified with the mainstream labor movement who were opposed to anarchism," Donner said.

That set the pattern for the Red squads, a pattern that continues today. Whatever the city, said Donner, the goal and tactics are much the same: "police behavior motivated or influenced in whole or in part by hostility to protest, dissent and related activities perceived as a threat to the status quo."

Los Angeles was important to the development of the squads. As recently as the early '80s, the Los Angeles Police Department's Public Disorder Intelligence Division was revealed as a major rights offender when civil libertarians and reporters disclosed spying on those with liberal political beliefs. Activities that were perfectly legal--admirable, in fact--were targeted for infiltration and disruption by the PDID sleuths. Finally, hit by lawsuits and under fire from the City Council and the Police Commission, the PDID was closed down, and replaced with another unit, possibly more respectful of civil liberties.

Just as Haymarket started Chicago's police on the path of spying, PDID activities were deeply rooted in the anti-union, anti-radical feelings of Los Angeles business. In early Los Angeles, dominated by conservative business and religious leaders, the Red squad became more influential than in most places.

In the '20s and '30s, under the leadership of Capt. William Francis (Red) Hynes, the intelligence squad broke up union and leftist meetings regularly, knocking heads and hustling protesters off to jail. Hynes became a big man in town. "More than any other single individual, Hynes was influential in shaping the modern Red squad and in exploiting the career opportunities of its chief," writes Donner.

Grateful employers slipped Hynes money under the table. His detail got cash payments, too. So effective was Hynes that employers outside the city brought him in to break strikes. In the Imperial Valley in 1934, Donner says, "hundreds of strikers were gassed, clubbed and held incommunicado for weeks on end."

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