ST. PAUL, Minnesota (AP) — Among the scathing findings of an investigation launched after the police killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis police used secret or fictitious social media accounts to surveil black individuals and groups despite the lack of a clear public safety rationale for doing so. .
The report released Wednesday by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights echoes numerous past revelations that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have — sometimes unlawfully — secretly monitored prominent figures and communities of color despite not being involved in any criminal activity.
Overall, the two-year investigation found the Minneapolis Police Department had engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination for at least a decade, including arresting and arresting black people at a higher rate than whites, a more frequent use of force on people of color, and a departmental culture that tolerated racist language.
On social media, he highlighted departmental abuses revealed in a review covering activity between 2010 and 2020.
Officers used “secret or fake” accounts to research and access online profiles of black individuals, including an anonymous city council member and state elected official, the report said, as well as groups such as the Minneapolis NAACP and Urban League. Activity included friend requests, comments on posts, private messages and joining discussions.
“In doing so, the officers posed as like-minded individuals and claimed, for example, that they had met the targeted person at a protest or an earlier protest,” the report said.
The report acknowledges that law enforcement may have legitimate reasons to monitor social media “if there is a clear investigative purpose to advance public safety” and if clear procedures and accountability mechanisms are in place. square.
But Minneapolis police failed to meet those standards, investigators determined, misusing the accounts “to monitor and engage black individuals, black organizations and elected officials unrelated to criminal activity, without a public safety objective. “.
The report does not include enough detail to substantiate criminal charges against specific officers or lawsuits brought by targeted individuals, but some observers say it seems likely the Human Rights Department has other information. findings from the investigation that a lawyer might use to try to build a case.
Spokesperson Taylor Putz said the agency was unable to release any information other than that contained in the report, as the case is still considered open while it works with the city to resolve the issues. problems she has identified.
Minneapolis police spokesman Howie Padilla said his department was still digesting the document and declined further comment.
Via Twitter, the Minneapolis NAACP expressed dismay at having spent years working with police to try to resolve the issues “only for the MPD to continue to block efforts, turn around and watch us.” .
Andrew Ferguson, a law professor and expert in police technology and surveillance at American University, said that among the many examples of misconduct described in the report, “the abuse of social media raises a red flag for all law enforcement agencies. police”.
“What is happening in Minnesota is happening in many jurisdictions because there are few rules in place and no accountability,” Ferguson said. “Police are digging into social media without limits, turning our digital lives into sources of surveillance. It may seem less violent than some of the other police misconduct, but it is still violent and reprehensible.
For Diala Shamas, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, the revelations echo a secret FBI program from the 1950s to the early 1970s, known as Cointelpro, which carried out illegal surveillance and sabotage against groups of civil rights advocacy and other organizations, sowing paranoia. , distrust and violence. Targets included Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and many others.
Police actions in Minneapolis, Shamas said, amount to “a Cointelpro tactic with a modern twist.”
However, law enforcement across the country has been using social media monitoring for years. A 2016 survey by the Urban Institute and the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 70% of departments undermined social media during investigations.
But the rules governing how they do this are often opaque, vague, or not in the public domain.
In an ongoing study of policing policies in U.S. jurisdictions with populations of at least 100,000, researchers from the Brennan Center for Justice found that only 35 police departments had publicly available policies that somehow addressed another the use of social media to gather information. Of these, 15 had language setting limits on covert or covert online activity. But several were vague or set a low bar for clearance, simply requiring supervisor approval.
“I would say that very few, if any, policies really gave detailed and solid limits on the use of undercover accounts,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Freedom and National Security Program.
Police misuse of social media has been uncovered in counties beyond Minneapolis, she noted.
In Tennessee, a lawsuit filed by the ACLU’s State Chapter uncovered the use of secret Facebook accounts by Memphis officers to target activists of color and community justice advocates. A federal judge determined that violated a longstanding consent decree barring the department from interfering with activities protected by the First Amendment.
And in California, the Brennan Center obtained records showing third-party social media monitoring companies offered their services to the Los Angeles Police Department, including the ability to create stealth accounts for officers. While the city requires approval for some undercover online activity, Levinson-Waldman said, there are exceptions such as threat assessments that allow officers to circumvent genuine surveillance or accountability.
Facebook and its parent company warned both departments that they had violated the terms of service, she added. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all have policies prohibiting the use of their data for surveillance, and Facebook’s guidelines for law enforcement specifically prohibit fake accounts.
Shamas of the Center for Constitutional Rights said covert surveillance like that practiced in Minneapolis and elsewhere can have serious and chilling effects.
“The idea that you don’t know the person you’re in contact with is undercover or an informant means you’ll be less likely to explore new ideas for strategies and campaigns,” she said, “all things that are important for a democratic society.
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