VOL. 132 | NO. 37 | Tuesday, February 21, 2017
City Hall List Controversy Deepens With Questions About Police Surveillance
By Bill Dries
The controversy deepened Monday, Feb. 20, over a list of 81 people – many who have participated in recent protests for different causes in the last year – who require a police escort while anywhere in City Hall.
On what was a holiday at City Hall, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland took questions from reporters for the first time since the list was made public Friday and Strickland followed up Saturday by announcing he had asked Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings to review the names on the list.
Strickland confirmed Monday that several dozen names he signed a trespassing authorization of agency for in January that applied to his home were put on the City Hall list by police without his knowledge.
“I trust our Memphis Police Department and the director and there was a reason to have this list prior to my becoming mayor,” Strickland said of the City Hall list.
He also said complaints and allegations that police have been gathering intelligence on protesters is something he has not heard about before.
Asked if the City Hall list was a result of police surveillance, Strickland said. “I don’t know. I didn’t create the list. I didn’t even know it existed as of 10 days ago.”
He also said the question of police surveillance is “a separate issue from this list.”
Rallings released a video statement Monday saying the list is still under review by him but not shedding any light on the rationale for putting citizens on the list.
“Keep in mind that the list is constantly being reviewed and evaluated,” he said. “Due to the Memphis Police Department receiving an open record request, that by law we must fulfill, we did not alter the list prior to releasing it to the public, in an effort to remain transparent. Once we have completed our review and it is deemed necessary, those names that should not be included will be removed. Again, peace and safety are our primary concerns.”
The lists were altered by the police department to redact addresses and other personal information.
The authorization of agency on Strickland’s home, dated Jan. 4 and signed by Strickland, several weeks after a “die-in” protest on the lawn of his home included more names than the dozen or so protesters who participated.
Prior to that, Strickland said he had resisted calls by police brass for him to up his security.
“At that point, I talked to the director and said, ‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe we do need some more security at the house.’ And they suggested authorization of agency. They came up with a list of names.”
Strickland said he doesn’t know how the police came up with the names, but he signed all four authorizations on the same date. Some time later, the police lieutenant in charge of City Hall security added a handwritten note to each of the four pages reading “Also have to be escorted while in City Hall” – a notation that Strickland said he wasn’t aware of.
Of the 81 names on all of the lists released to the public Friday, 14 were added to the City Hall list Jan. 17 by police without any authorization by Strickland involving his home. Most of them were among protesters at the Valero refinery in South Memphis the day before their addition to the list in a protest that ended with several arrests for blocking the entrance to the south Memphis plant.
Local social action groups have complained at several points in recent years of surveillance by Memphis Police including police in marked cars parked on the lot of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center during the tenure of Police Director Larry Godwin.
After the July 10 Black Lives Matter protests that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge for several hours, Rallings said police were monitoring social media accounts and other sources on possible protest actions. He was not specific about how the police department was monitoring possible protests.
Rallings has also justified higher visibility by police at protests including the use at a Graceland protest in August of an armored all terrain vehicle that police emerged from with rifles drawn. Rallings has said such measures are necessary because of terrorism concerns and that he has to guard against that even if protesters are nonviolent.
Memphis Police had a “domestic intelligence” unit until 1978 when the unit was abolished by police brass ahead of a federal court consent decree still in effect that specifically barred Memphis Police from conducting such operations without probable cause of criminal conduct.
The court case was brought by Eric Carter, a University of Memphis student during the Vietnam War who sought any records from police on his activities as a protester. Carter’s request came at a time when many Americans politically active in the 1960s and early 1970s were able under Watergate era reforms to seek law enforcement files on them including FBI files.
The unit’s last assignment was believed to be surveillance of Iranian students protesting U.S. support of the Shah of Iran during a 1978 national Democratic Party midterm convention held in Memphis.
The records of the domestic intelligence unit, including those gathered during the 1968 sanitation workers strike and police surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s final days and hours in Memphis during the 1968 strike were destroyed by police ahead of the consent decree. Some of the surveillance work has surfaced in the intervening decades through interviews and most notably during a 1999 Circuit Court case in which police officers in the unit testified about what they saw and learned and what their duties were.