Denver police release records from ‘spy files’ probe

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

DENVER — A former head of the Denver Police Department’s intelligence bureau misled Chief Gerry Whitman and top city administrators into believing officers were complying with federal guidelines when spying on protesters, according to documents released last week.

The documents also indicated that Police Department officials knew as early as May 1998 that such spying was a legal liability.

Hundreds of pages of documents and depositions were released Jan. 27 in compliance with a decision last month by Denver District Judge Catherine Lemon. Ruling in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, Lemon ordered that documents relating to more than a decade of police surveillance of various activist groups had to be made public.

Whitman was unavailable for comment, a spokesman said. ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein reserved comment until he could review all the documents.

The ACLU sued on behalf of two community activists for access to the files. Stephen and Vickie Nash, vocal members of CopWatch, had asked the Police Department for access to the names of the officers who authorized and carried out improper spying on the couple and information on the resulting discipline.

In her Dec. 7 ruling, Lemon scolded the police for refusing to release the files.

“The court finds that the Defendants’ blanket denial of every request for [internal-affairs] files, without a case-by-case consideration … constitute(s) (an) arbitrary and capricious denial of Plaintiffs’ rights,” she said.

“Open access to internal-affairs files enhances the effectiveness of internal-affairs investigators, rather than impairing them,” she added. “Knowing that they will be scrutinized makes investigators do a better job and makes the department more accountable to the public.”

The documents released last week included findings of an internal-affairs investigation that a former commander of the department’s intelligence bureau misled Whitman and then-Mayor Wellington Webb into believing officers were complying with federal guidelines when monitoring protests.

The findings accuse Capt. Vincent DiManna of negligence in his performance as commander of the department’s intelligence bureau, and claim he presented Whitman with a bogus policy — a plan had been written and proposed, but was never implemented. Webb later relayed that policy to the public at a news conference.

“These actions embarrassed the Denver Police Department and the city administration,” said Marco Vasquez, head of internal affairs, in an interdepartment correspondence dated July 7, 2003.

DiManna, who retired before the internal-affairs investigation was complete and was not disciplined, could not be reached for comment.

According to the documents, police officials knew as early as eight years ago that its intelligence work was a legal liability. Intelligence officer Tony Lombard discovered that a law enforcement agency in New Mexico had been successfully sued for collecting intelligence, and that lawsuits had been filed in San Francisco and Chicago.

Lombard noted that Denver did not have a policy regarding the collection, storage and dissemination of intelligence information. One detective was allowed to take several boxes of the spy files to his home as his personal property. The Intelligence Bureau used $45,800 in property-confiscation funds to buy a computerized database to automate the files. Lombard could not be reached for comment.

The department announced in 2002 that it kept files on more than 200 groups and more than 3,200 individuals. Among members of the groups were the Nashes, American Indian activist Russell Means and University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill.

In the case of the Nashes, the city earlier had acknowledged that officers in the department’s intelligence bureau improperly spied on the couple, whom officers labeled as “criminal extremists.” CopWatch monitors Denver officers and their behavior.

Also among the files was an outline of high-ranking officers who have headed up the intelligence bureau and a breakdown of the department’s surveillance tactics, which included gaining membership to activist groups under false pretenses beyond the bounds of Denver, across the Rocky Mountain region.

Among other incidents mentioned in the files:

  • In 1994, a bureau detective uncovered a plot to assassinate Churchill and an American Indian Movement member, but the files show no action being taken by the department or warning given to the men. The detective told internal affairs he believed the FBI would handle the threat, but was not aware of any follow-up in the case.

  • In the early 1990s, an undercover officer spied on a meeting at the Mexican Consulate in Denver with protesters sympathetic to rebels in Chiapas, Mexico.

  • Detectives traveled to Greeley to spy on members of the Colorado Progressive Coalition, which promotes racial justice and civil rights, and they surveilled protests of police accountability and rallies against the National Rifle Association in downtown Denver.

  • They also spied on a funeral service in Laramie for the wife of the Rev. Pete Peters, an outspoken critic of the United Nations, where they collected license plate numbers.

    The documents show that in the summer of 2000, Whitman issued a directive to research the intelligence-gathering practices of other cities. In response, a police detective noted in an internal memo that “several large police agencies do not use undercover intelligence officers at events.”

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