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CAMPAIGN 2000

Officers Kept Eye on Protests From Within

August 18, 2000|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Police Department calls them "scouts," and they are so good at their job that, during this week's protests, some were shot at and others were arrested--by their own colleagues.

The LAPD undercover officers assigned to join the crowds of demonstrators drawn by the Democratic National Convention are a young, purposefully ragtag group that has blended easily and invisibly into the sea of young faces protesting downtown.

Throughout the week, they have provided a key element in the Police Department's intelligence-gathering network, as they circulated unnoticed within crowds across the city.

They mingle with different groups of protesters, relaying information back to intelligence officers working at several LAPD command posts.

The LAPD's undercover operation was "an extremely critical part of the [department's] plan," said Cmdr. Tom Lorenzen, who oversees the department's convention planning unit. "Without good intelligence, we would not be as efficient as we are."

But civil libertarians and protest organizers question whether the undercover officers are provocateurs or observers, particularly given the LAPD's dubious history of political spying.

Lisa Fithian, an organizer of D2KLA and the Direct Action Network, said she is concerned that undercover police officers may have contributed to potentially wrongful arrests and possibly to the problems Monday evening, when police used horses and so-called less lethal weapons to disperse the crowd after a free concert by Rage Against the Machine.

"There are a lot of unknowns in this now," Fithian said. "The question is, do they create problems in the midst of our meetings or actions?"

She said members of her group saw people dressed as protesters sitting in a police car after Sunday's anti-police rally. And she said others in her group reported that officers, again posing as protesters, flashed a police badge at the parking lot attendant to gain entrance to the Convergence Center, the group's organizing headquarters.

"It's standard operating procedure: infiltrate and disrupt," Fithian said. "They are potentially trying to incite problems in the midst of our demonstrations. We're not doing anything illegal; we're not doing anything wrong."

Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at USC, said that while he understands that the use of undercover officers is a valuable law enforcement tool, they must be used carefully or "we could lose our protected rights."

"The concern always is the chilling effect it would have on protected speech activities," Chemerinsky said. "Even if we're doing nothing wrong as a group, we still might talk differently if we know there is an uninvited police officer among us."

LAPD officials, however, deny that undercover officers provoke incidents. Rather, they say these officers merely circulate--always in public areas--to provide valuable information.

The LAPD has a particularly long and pungent history of spying on political dissenters dating to the "Red Squad" of the 1930s that regularly broke up union and leftist meetings, hustling protesters to jail. Then, in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was learned that officers from the department's Public Disorder Intelligence Division had infiltrated left-wing groups and that others had spied on local politicians and critics of the Police Department.

Shortly after the controversial revelations about the division in the 1980s, the department replaced it with the Anti-Terrorist Division and settled a lawsuit by agreeing to strict limits on its activities. Four years ago, however, the civilian Police Commission, which oversees the department's management, relaxed many of the rules governing undercover operations.

As a result, the department now uses these officers routinely.

One morning this week, some of these undercover officers met before going out on the streets in their work clothes: T-shirts and shorts, bandannas, thong shoes and sneakers. They even are allowed to break department policy by wearing beards and keeping their hair long. One wore a "Free Mumia" bandanna, a reference to a Pennsylvania inmate on death row for killing a police officer. His face was unshaven, his hair tousled.

When asked if they were worried about getting swept up in trouble, they shrugged. It's all in a day's work for these officers.

One, however, said, smiling, that he was a little worried about being shot "by one of those," pointing to fellow officers in uniform checking out shotguns.

In fact, a few were shot at by their colleagues with stinger rounds and beanbag projectiles during Monday's melee in which hundreds of police attempted to move the large crowd that lingered after the concert by rock group Rage Against the Machine, police sources said. A day later, a couple of these undercover officers were arrested during a bicycle protest in which about 100 cyclists allegedly tried to block city streets, the sources said.

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