- Local Black Lives Matter leader said she was told police monitored her with electronic devices
- Council members did not comment Tuesday on the allegations
- A fissure has appeared on council over a 2016 monitoring operation of civil rights groups
ASHEVILLE – The leader of a local Black Lives Matter group has pushed back against police statements on recently revealed monitoring of civil rights groups, saying police efforts went further than the department has acknowledged and included electronic surveillance.
Police have said a 2016 operation into groups and “related individuals” amounted to intelligence gathering, not surveillance.
But a legal expert Wednesday said the term surveillance might apply to the operation as described by police and that the term itself has little meaning in a legal sense.
Black Lives Matter President Delores Venable made the charges at a Tuesday City Council meeting, the first since a Citizen Times investigation revealed the existence of an intelligence gathering operation two years ago. The operation also included monitoring Showing Up for Racial Justice.
Police say the monitoring happened on social media and at open meetings.
Speaking during the council’s public comment time, Venable said she was approached in July 2016 by a man who identified himself as a retired law enforcement officer who said he had talked with Asheville Police Department officers.
“He said that he had been told that not only was I being monitored personally, but I was also being monitored by phone, email, electronic devices and also social media,” she said.
Some council members reacted last week after the publication of the Citizen Times investigation, though none commented Tuesday after Venable’s remarks.
The seven elected officials, who said they didn’t know about the operation until March, are split in their opinions on the monitoring.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and councilman Vijay Kapoor said alleged threats against police were legitimate reasons to start the operation. Councilmen Brian Haynes and Keith Young said they were disturbed and troubled by the monitoring.
Others have not commented or have taken more measured stances.
The most recent comments from a council member came from Haynes, who at a Monday meeting of the council’s public safety committee said elected officials were not told about the monitoring “until it was over.”
Haynes was reacting to statements by former NAACP criminal justice reform chairwoman Dee Williams, who spoke at the committee meeting and expressed anger at APD Chief Tammy Hooper and the council.
“How dare the chief do that,” she said. “How dare you.”
Venable, who is Williams’ daughter, said she wasn’t sure whether to take the man she said identified himself as a retired police officer seriously at the time. Speaking after the council meeting, the Black Lives Matter president said two years ago she didn’t think such things would happen in Asheville.
But she said her mother got a phone call in December 2017 from a man who talked about the monitoring as well as about the police beating of an unarmed black pedestrian, which few people knew about then but which a few months later became national news after publication of leaked police body camera footage.
Police have declined to answer Citizen Times questions on whether the monitoring operation used electronic devices. They’ve also refused to say if officers attended the meetings undercover.
Giving more information about the operation could endanger community members and officers, an APD spokeswoman said.
The operation started in response to threats police said were made against officers in the racially charged aftermath of the July 2, 2016, police shooting of a black man, Jai “Jerry” Williams. Police said the threats occurred in meetings and on social media but declined to say what they were.
Rondell Lance, president of the police advocacy group Fraternal Order of Police, defended the operation Tuesday, saying the monitoring was done in places accessible to the public and, as he understood it, didn’t include more intense surveillance, which he said would require a court order.
Police have said the operation didn’t include “following people” or “tracking movement.”
Groups monitored were involved in an unpermitted march, blocking traffic and causing “chaos,” Lance said while also speaking during the council’s public comment time.
“The police department would be negligent in their duty if they didn’t monitor them,” he said.
He offered support for Hooper, saying she was one of the best chiefs Asheville has had recently. He said those giving information on intelligence gathering and other police activity were motivated by opposition to Hooper because she is a strong woman who has been insisting on changes.
Several other people spoke during the public comment time Tuesday, some offering support for police and others saying they were dismayed by the monitoring, which several described as a breach of trust.
Jeff Welty a public law attorney and professor at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill, said the differentiation between intelligence gathering and surveillance is in many ways artificial.
Watching someone from a discreet distance or observing them in meetings open to the public could be considered surveillance, Welty said.
So could mounting a pole camera outside someone’s home, he said. Those types of monitoring wouldn’t require a court order
“It really doesn’t require a judge to say anything for a lot of kinds of surveillance.”
The types of surveillance that do require a warrant include wire tapping someone’s phone or putting a tracker on a car, he said.
The main trigger for requiring court action is when police cross the line of looking into places where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” Welty said.