In 2016, the Asheville Police Department launched an intelligence gathering investigation into Black Lives Matter, Standing Up for Racial Justice and others.
ASHEVILLE – Two years ago, after the fatal police shooting of a local black man ignited a summer of racial tension, police launched an intelligence operation to monitor the efforts of two civil rights groups, a Citizen Times investigation has found.
Asheville Police Department Chief Tammy Hooper authorized the monitoring of Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice in response to what she said were threats to officers after the shooting of Jai “Jerry” Williams by a white police sergeant.
The groups’ organizers said they are unaware of any threats made by their members to harm police. Their groups work to raise awareness about racism and get more equitable treatment for minorities, they said. .
City Council members appear to have been briefed on the operation sometime after March 2018, according to statements from the elected officials and police. APD revealed the operation to the Citizen Times in May after questioning.
Mayor Esther Manheimer said City Council isn’t allowed by the city charter to get involved in day-to-day police operations and that it’s APD’s job to “devise legal strategies” to keep the community safe.
“It would be my expectation that the department utilize information gathering practices, typical of any police department, that keep them one step ahead of any potential danger to our community,” Manheimer said Monday, when asked for her reaction to the operation.
Police officials, however, have declined to answer most of the Citizen Times’ questions about the operation, including whether officers monitored the organizations openly or in an undercover fashion. They also have refused to detail the threats they received.
APD has not confirmed the monitoring has ended or said whether a full-blown criminal investigation was started as a result.
The Citizen Times gathered tips from an anonymous source with knowledge of the monitoring, public records and police statements over five months to piece together a picture of the operation.
The monitoring drew strong criticism from civil rights activists, like Black Lives Matter education coordinator Sharon Smith, who after learning about the operation from the Citizen Times said it made her believe APD’s motives had nothing to do with public safety.
“That’s just an intimidation tactic, basically,” Smith said. “They are looking for something to hold on us. It’s inappropriate.”
Experienced law enforcement personnel say the monitoring is not unheard of.
But legal experts say it runs the risk of trampling civil rights and undermining public trust, especially at a time when Asheville, like the nation, is facing difficult questions over treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement. High-profile violent incidents ranging from the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to the August beating of unarmed black pedestrian in Asheville, have amplified tensions.
“This is fundamental to free speech protections; the context matters,” said Jonathan Jones, a former prosecutor who now directs the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, a nonprofit promoting public access to government activities with members including the Associated Press and the conservative John Locke Foundation.
“If groups monitored are made up predominantly of folks who don’t have violent intent, who are just trying to change society, it raises questions,” Jones said.
The monitoring, according to police, also targeted “related individuals,” and at least two non-civil rights groups: the popular Facebook group Asheville Politics and an activist vegan organization DxE or “Direct Action Everywhere.”
Hooper and other city officials have declined interview requests about the operation, saying they would respond only to written questions.
“The purpose of written questions is to allow us to prepare complete answers without compromising confidential information that could put someone’s safety in jeopardy,” Hooper wrote to the Citizen Times.
Residents say they were targets
Black Lives Matter President Delores Venable and her mother, former council candidate and longtime activist Dee Williams, said they were told by an anonymous caller they were under police surveillance, along with the Rev. Amy Cantrell, a leading city social justice activist.
Venable and Williams made the statements at a March 7 Citizens/Police Advisory Committee meeting. The highly charged gathering followed the reporting of the August 2017 police beating of Johnnie Rush, who was accused of jaywalking and trespassing by cutting through the parking lot of a business closed for the night. The community outcry at the meeting included calls for Hooper’s resignation.
Criminal charges were brought against then-officer Chris Hickman eight days after the Feb. 28 publication of body cam footage of the beating by the Citizen Times.
At the meeting, Venable confronted Hooper.
“Is it true or is it not that you and your officers had me, Amy Cantrell and Dee Williams under surveillance with your taxpayer money. Is that true or is it not?” she asked.
Hooper responded: “I have not had you under surveillance or your mom or any individual person.”
“Based on what we are hearing in the community, there seems to be confusion around information gathering (also called intelligence gathering) and direct criminal surveillance, i.e. following people, tracking movement etc.,” APD spokeswoman Christina Hallingse said in a May 9 email. “No individual was under surveillance as part of this effort.”
Black Lives Matter education coordinator Smith said she has regularly seen police near Venable’s home in Kenilworth, and that there “is constantly an APD car parked at the bottom of her street.”
Heated summer in 2016
Police said they began their operation after the July 2, 2016, shooting of Jai “Jerry” Williams by Sgt. Tyler Radford.
Suspected of having fired a gun outside an apartment complex, police said Williams led Radford on a high-speed chase. Upon being stopped, Radford said Williams refused to put his hands up and instead picked up a gun. Radford shot him nine times.
Post-mortem tests showed Williams was intoxicated. A recent civil suit by Williams’ family against APD disputes the police version of events.
In December 2016, District Attorney Todd Williams ruled the shooting justified.
More on the APD monitoring operation:
• Timeline: Monitoring of Asheville civil rights groups has roots in fatal police shooting
• Police monitoring of social activists has recent history in NC
• What is police ‘intelligence gathering’ and how is it different from an investigation
• Timeline of Jerry Williams shooting and aftermath
Days after Williams’ death, protestors gathered at the Buncombe County Courthouse. At a news conference, Williams’ family was joined by John Barnett, founder of the Charlotte-based civil rights group True Healing Under God. He pointed to the high-profile deaths of Brown, Eric Garner and other African-American men in fatal police encounters.
Protests culminated with a July 21 unpermitted march through downtown, where police said participants pounded on cars and blocked streets. Demonstrators placed a Black Lives Matter banner on the police station, and held an overnight sit-in inside the station. Eight people were arrested, including Cantrell.
Police: Officers were at risk after Williams shooting
Hallingse said the threats on police came in July and August 2016 and were “observed on social media and in open meetings.”
She refused provide further description of the threats, including what was said, who made them, who observed them or whom they targeted. She said revealing that, “could jeopardize the safety of community members and police officers.”
Hallingse also cited state law, saying criminal investigations and criminal intelligence information are not public record. That nondisclosure, however, is optional, said N.C. Press Association attorney Amanda Martin.
Civil rights groups leaders said their missions didn’t include violence.
“Nobody in Asheville Black Lives Matter is involved in criminal anything,” said Smith. “Nobody has issued any threats to police.”
Roach, who’s group Showing Up for Racial Justice was created as a way for white people to fight racism, said the march and sit-in may have “freaked out,” APD officials.
“There are definitely activists in the community who don’t like the police, but SURJ is not the type of group that would issue threats,” Roach said.
Officers attended meetings
Hooper authorized officers to monitor “publicly accessible information to assess whether or not criminal activity was being planned,” according to a statement from Hallingse. That approval required a “reasonable suspicion” the groups may have been planning or engaging in criminal activity, based on APD’s intelligence and analysis policies.
Intelligence gathering is different from a criminal investigation. Launching an investigation requires a higher degree of certainty by police that crime is occurring because an investigation’s purpose is to prevent or solve a crime.
Hallingse didn’t answer whether electronic recording devices were used in the groups’ monitoring. She described the meetings police attended starting July 2016 as open events.
She would not say whether officers wore uniforms or identified themselves as law enforcement, or whether officers worked undercover or tried to infiltrate the groups.
Group leaders said they didn’t see uniformed officers and that no attendees identified themselves as police.
Roach said Showing Up for Racial Justice meetings happened at Firestorm Books Coffee in West Asheville and began with attendees introducing themselves. Some people may have come in late and not spoken, she said.
Black Lives Matter meetings were at a house converted into an office in the historically black Southside area, Smith said. While most attendees were African-American, there were “quite a few white people,” the education coordinator said.
“We knew who people were, so any officers would be instantly recognizable,” she said.
Attacks against police
Some say the Asheville department’s actions were routine and occurred as attacks were being made against law enforcement nationally.
One was the 2014 ambush-style slaying of two New York police officers by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who apparently posted threats on social media showing a desire to kill police after the deaths of Garner and Brown.
Two years later in Dallas, Micah Johnson gunned down five officers, telling police during a standoff he did it as revenge for recent shootings. The Dallas event happened July 7, 2016 — five days after Williams’ shooting in Asheville.
“Every threat is taken seriously,” said Joseph Giacalone, a former commanding officer for NYPD homicide cold cases and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Joe Pollini, a former NYPD undercover officer who also teaches at John Jay, said police monitoring should be careful in crossing certain lines, such as infiltrating a group deeply or becoming “a sworn member.”
Police should also avoid keeping files with information unrelated to suspected crimes, something that raises civil liberties concerns.
“It can start to be a problem if you are keeping records on individuals,” Pollini said.
But attending public rallies undercover, or even going to open meetings in a private space, wouldn’t violate common police standards, he said.
“If it’s a public meeting, it’s fine.”
Civil rights and government spying
But legal experts say police should move cautiously when determining whether an intelligence operation is warranted.
The context of threats, the resources needed and the sticky history of police monitoring civil rights groups should all be considered, they say.
Jeff Welty, a public law professor with the UNC School of Government, said observation of civil rights groups brings up questions of free speech protections and can harken back to government spying in 1960s and 1970s on such organizations.
“That kind of raises the specter of a political motivation, which is antithetical to the idea that law enforcement is a politically neutral public servant,” he said.
Also, without a solid reason, such actions could damage a police department’s reputation and trust with the public it is paid to protect. That’s “really serious,” said Jones, the N.C. Open Government Coallition director.
Smith, with Black Lives Matter, said the monitoring was a “waste of time.”
“It speaks to the racism inherent in policing. Because what we’re talking about is undoing racism and undoing police violence.”
Hallingse said the department doesn’t conduct intelligence operations “based solely on ethnic background or race.”
Monitoring Facebook, vegans
While Asheville Politics doesn’t hold physical meetings, the popular left-leaning Facebook group has almost 7,500 members who engage in spirited, wonky and often tongue-in-cheek political discussions.
APD declined to say what it observed in monitoring the group, where it’s not unusual to see posts from City Council members or candidates during election season.
Administrators include former council candidate Rich Lee and the elected Buncombe County register of deeds, Drew Reisinger.
The targeted vegan group DxE promotes the abolition of meat of and stages disruptive protests at restaurants and stores selling animal products.
Local organizer Jeremy Sagaribay said he knew little about Williams’ shooting and said members never issued any threats.
“We do not condone violence or threats of violence against anyone,” he said.
Like the other groups, Sagaribay said they never saw police at their meetings but said there were uniformed officers at their demonstrations.
What was the result of the operation?
Information gathered in an intelligence operation but not related to criminal activity is to be destroyed, Hallingse said. She would not say if any information from this operation was stored in criminal intelligence files.
She said intelligence operations are “very helpful” in catching and convicting criminals. They also can help police plan for demonstrations and rallies
Hallingse said police used information from social media and “publicly accessible areas” to identify and cite participants in the 2016 unpermitted march.
The information’s classification as a nonpublic record prevents those who were potentially monitored from knowing the outcome of the police operation.
Roach said the operation would have found no evidence against Showing Up for Racial Justice.
“We made our statements publicly through the media and our right to assemble,” she said. “If we were in fact infiltrated, we know that police would not find a threat to them because we had never been one.”