VOL. 133 | NO. 169 | Monday, August 27, 2018
Testimony on Parameters of Police Surveillance Ends
Special to The Daily News
After four days and more than a dozen witnesses, the federal trial regrading the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city of Memphis over political surveillance of protesters by police ended Thursday, Aug. 23.
The testimony of three witnesses wrapped up the proceedings that began Monday, Aug. 20.
Now attorneys for both sides have until late September to submit and reply to legal briefs addressing several issues in the case. U.S. Dist. Judge Jon P. McCalla will not rule on the matter until those legal arguments are submitted.
Protesters blocked traffic on the busy Hernando DeSoto Bridge in July 2016 for several hours. The city is embroiled in a lawsuit alleging police violated the constitutional rights of certain protesters who were targeted for monitoring. (Daily News File Photo)
Attorneys representing Memphis plan to file legal briefs challenging whether the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has legal standing to sue since the organization was not party to the 1978 federal court consent decree at the heart of the lawsuit before the federal court.
ACLU attorneys will also submit their legal arguments on the same date questioning the merits brought up in the case during the trial.
McCalla already issued a partial ruling on Aug. 10, saying Memphis police gathered political intelligence on protesters over the last two years in violation of the 40-year-old court consent decree.
The trial was held to hash out other issues including if the ACLU has legal standing to sue, if the city is in contempt of the decree and what sanctions the judge could impose on the city if he determines there was a violation of the decree.
After the trial, Thomas Castelli, legal director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told reporters outside the federal courthouse that he couldn’t discuss specifics of the case because the ruling was still pending. But he expressed hope that the evidence presented would bring awareness on how other cities and other police departments are conducting surveillance of protests.
Castelli outlined the point of contention as “whether or not they’re crossing the line that we as people, as citizens and constituents, should say to our public officials, “We don’t want this. This is not the type of policing we want in the United States,” Castelli said.
Bruce McMullen, the city’s chief legal officer, said the city previous consent decree language needs modifying it because “it’s not really relevant today.”
During the trial, a parade of witnesses testified including local activists and Police Director Michael Rallings.
Rallings, a 28-year police veteran, testified that police monitored protests from Black Lives Matter rallies to Ku Klux Klan gatherings not to compile political intelligence, but to ensure public safety of protesters, counter protesters as well as police officers.
Rev. Elaine Blanchard, one of the last three witnesses Thursday, testified about her experience with police when she took part in a Black Lives Matter protest outside of Graceland in 2016.
“The police made a wall of themselves across Elvis Presley Boulevard and if you wanted to go and hold a candle for Elvis you needed to get past them,” Blanchard said. “If you were white, they were letting people by. Black people were not allowed to get by. They had seen me, so when I pushed to get by, they pushed me back.”
Months later, Blanchard, an ordained minister, learned she and several others had their names added to a security list at City Hall requiring a police escort any time they were in the municipal building.
Blanchard, a grandmother, said she nicknamed herself “Gangsta Grammie” after she was put on the list.
The names added to the City Hall list or “blacklist” triggered the 2017 federal complaint before the court. Blanchard along with activists, Keedran Franklin, Paul Garner and Bradley Watkins, were the original plaintiffs, but were dropped by the court because they were not party to the 1978 decree. The ACLU was then named as the plaintiff against the city.
Rev. Earle Fisher, whose name was also on the “blacklist,” testified Thursday about his experiences with police after he organized protests in the city.
“The police presence at many events I’ve been involved with has been noteworthy,” Fisher said.
The trial ended with testimony from Memphis police Maj. Lambert Ross. Ross, was the former head of the Real Time Crime Center and is now over the department’s homicide division.
The Real Time Crime Center analysts and officers with the department’s Office of Homeland Security monitored protests in the city that police said “ramped” up in 2016 after several officer-involved shootings of unarmed black men across the country.
It was learned during the trial that Memphis police Sgt. Tim Reynolds with Homeland Security was the one of the officers behind the department’s fake Facebook account “Bob Smith.” Posing as Smith, a man of color, Reynolds, a white police officer, friended several activists and monitored their social media accounts, including private Facebook groups.
Ross said police used tools such as the social media collator software Geofeedia and NC4 to search public social media accounts for chatter about protest activities. He also said police use 1,000 cameras throughout the city that can read license plates and even pinpoint gunfire to help with their investigations, including protests.
When Ross was questioned by ACLU attorneys about a Nov. 30, 2016 email that he sent inquiring about a request for still photos of a protest for the director and “to put them in a folder,” Ross said the email was about paying officers who had been following a Fight for $15 protest overtime and not about gathering political intelligence on protesters.