Opinion » The Rant

In MPD We Trust? Surveilling Citizen Activists is Wrong

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I spent the better half of last week reporting on the federal trial between the city of Memphis and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. The question at hand: Did the Memphis Police Department (MPD) violate a 1978 agreement to not conduct political surveillance on non-criminals?

I'm no legal expert, but if political surveillance means keeping close tabs on political activists and their movements, it would appear the city has violated that agreement.

On the stand, MPD brass said over and over that the purpose of the monitoring of activists was to protect public safety and not to discourage them from exercising their First Amendment rights.

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The police department might have had good intentions for doing what it did, but they didn't go about it in the most transparent and constitutional way. The monitoring was done in a covert fashion, such that made those on the other end of the surveillance feel targeted and in some cases, criminalized.

Keedran Franklin, a well-known Memphis activist and one of the original plaintiffs in the case, said in court last week that police officers had been following him for a while. He'd notice them sitting outside of his house and showing up at events he coordinated. It's isolating, Franklin said, as people have been reluctant to associate with him because of the police's focus on him. He said he doesn't even visit his mom much anymore because he doesn't want her to be involved.

If the police were in fact following Franklin to this degree, then they were infringing upon his First Amendment rights, even if that wasn't the intention. More than that, it's a violation of the basic right to privacy. Everyone should have the right to move about without fear of constant police scrutiny.

Many of the events Franklin organized revolved around empowering and uplifting youth, but even these types of gatherings were apparently viewed by MPD as potential threats to public safety.

On other occasions, MPD showed up at vigils, memorial services, book drives, and other seemingly non-threatening events. A waste of resources? Probably. Stereotyping? Maybe.

Evidence presented in court showed that there was also heavy monitoring of events related to the death of 19-year-old Darrius Stewart, who was killed at the hands of an MPD officer in 2015. Adding insult to injury, MPD saw even the community's attempts to grieve and memorialize Stewart as potential threats to public safety.

And why use a fake Facebook account and a make-believe profile to find out what's going on in the community? That's not community policing. That's policing the community. Someone in the department should have known that, at the end of the day, that would only further alienate the members of the groups they were infiltrating.

After basically being outed as deceiving the public by conducting surveillance on civilians, police department morale has to be lessened. That's because policing is about trust. The community has to be able to trust that law enforcement has their best interests in mind. Ultimately, people just want to be able to know that the police have their back, no matter what political causes the citizens might believe in.

Michael Rallings, MPD director, said in court that the department never discriminates against a cause and only wants to assist activists in exercising their First Amendment rights by allowing them to carry out protests peacefully.

However, the undercover and, in some cases, sketchy MPD behavior revealed in court undermines that statement in the eyes of many.

Instead of spending the energy and resources used to create and monitor a fake Facebook account, the department could have made a better effort to personally get to know the activists they were surveilling.

Historically, there is deep mistrust between law enforcement and certain groups in the community. Monitoring the community from undercover is just a means of bandaging wounds that, in reality, need stitches.

Undercover officers and fake Facebook accounts seem like near-sighted shortcuts and an avoidance of the necessary hard work, like going into the community, hearing the concerns of the people, and finding a way to work together.

That being said, obviously, it makes sense for law enforcement to use modern technology to assist in doing the job of protecting and serving Memphis. But the use of that technology shouldn't be abused to overstep boundaries and impede on citizens' rights.

Technology can't and shouldn't ever take the place of building relationships and conducting true community policing.

Maya Smith is a Flyer staff writer.

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