Sunday, September 02, 2012

APD infiltrated Occupy Austin, helped make illegal devices used in Houston port protest

This is abominable.

Soon after Occupy Austin protesters began their months-long demonstration at City Hall last fall, Austin police officials assigned at least three undercover officers to infiltrate the group to gather intelligence on any plans that might break the law.

The officers camped with other participants in the movement, marched in rallies and attended strategy meetings with Occupy Austin members.

The officers also may have crossed a fine line in undercover police work: They helped plan and manufacture devices — often called "lock boxes" — that allowed Occupy members to tie themselves together during a protest in Houston, according to interviews and court records. The use of the devices, which makes it harder for police to break up human chains, resulted in Houston police filing felony charges against seven protestors who had attempted to block a port entrance in Houston on Dec. 12.

Felony charges from which the mayor of Houston has publicly declared she will not relent, you might recall. We'll see if this news compels some clearer thinking on her part. Returning to the Statesman article...

(The infiltration operation) was the topic of a hearing in a Harris County district court case earlier this week, in which protester Ronnie Garza is seeking to have the charges against him dropped.

It's not clear who first proposed making the lock boxes. But during the hearing, attorneys and Austin Police Detective Shannon Dowell — who wore a long black beard and was known to Occupy members as "Butch" — disclosed that Dowell had purchased PVC pipe and other materials with Occupy Austin money and delivered the finished lock boxes to movement members.

The devices used in the Houston protest are generally built from five-foot lengths of 5-inch wide PVC pipe with a bolt inserted in the center. Two protesters can put their arms in the pipe and grip the bolt, making it much more difficult for police to pull them apart. (See the photo above.)

Garza's attorney, Greg Gladden, said the case against his client should be dismissed because Dowell and other undercover police played a central role in the charges filed against Garza. While 10 protesters who didn't use the lock boxes were charged with lower-level misdemeanors, Harris County prosecutors charge Garza and six others with felonies, using an obscure statute that prohibits using a device that is manufactured or adapted for the purpose of participating in a crime. They face up to two years in jail.

"Entrapment is one term," Gladden said. "Police misconduct might be another term."

Harris County District Judge Joan Campbell, who initially dismissed the case — prosecutors then took it before a grand jury and obtained indictments — said she plans to decide next week whether the case will go forward.

I reached out to Don Cook, the Green candidate for the 22nd Congressional District and an activist in police misconduct issues, who provided the following response.

There have been a number of arrests of "terrorists" in this country since 9-11, and it is disturbing to me that most of them have involved operations where undercover officers with one law enforcement or anti-terrorist agency or department or another have proposed the illegal operation, recruited the "terrorist," and supplied all the necessary materials.  One wonders how strongly encouraged those "terrorists" were, and meditates upon the distinction between good police work and framing the innocent in these cases. 

I have no first hand information about events surrounding and leading to the civil disobedience arrests at the Houston Port Authority of several people from Occupy Houston last December, but I am not surprised to hear that there were several police officers apparently pretending to be "occupiers" involved behind the scenes in those arrests.  It involves a great deal of time, effort, and expense to mount an undercover law enforcement operation, and law enforcement is likely disinclined to go to all that time, effort and expense only to drill a dry well, so to speak.  But there is a fine line between good police work and entrapment, which I fear is not always perceived by law enforcement officers or the courts.  It would be a travesty of justice in a democracy for prisoners of conscience to additionally be concerned about being framed.  

Related: Did police go too far in undercover Occupy mission? (with video)

Update (9/6/12): The Houston Chronicle finally catches up, and gets the verb in the headline completely wrong. And Grits provides this.

Austin police administrators gave contradictory statements to Austin Chronicle reporter Jordan Smith about their use of three undercover operatives (or, perhaps, provocateurs) who infiltrated the Occupy Austin organization.

Police detective Shannon Dowell built a "lockbox" device for use at a Houston sit-in, the use of which upped criminal charges against the protesters from a misdemeanor to a felony. Reported Smith, such a "device usually must be cut off, posing risk to the user and, potentially, to the police or firefighters doing the cutting, if booby traps are employed inside the pipe." Further, "It was those concerns about safety, says APD Assistant Chief Sean Mannix, that prompted APD detective Shannon Dowell to get involved last December in constructing a series of lockboxes that the seven protesters were arrested for using at the Port of Houston."

So according to Mannix, the officer's actions were part and parcel of the intent of the operation to promote the safety of protesters and law enforcement. However, Austin police chief Art Acevedo told Smith that the undercover activities "went beyond the scope of the mission ... that was established at the executive level." "The trouble wasn't coming from the 'core Occupiers,'" says Acevedo, ignoring that the trouble was coming in part from APD's own officers. The chief told Smith that "'we are reviewing the matter, from top to bottom,' ... to see where the mission might have gone astray, in order to keep anything like that from happening in the future."

Which is right? Mannix's comments imply the officers were doing exactly what they were put there for, while if Acevedo is correct, it speaks to gross failures in management and oversight.  

Last bit.

...(H)ere the police sought not to deter crime but to worsen it, facilitating felonious actions instead of thwarting them, and withheld exculpatory evidence from prosecutors. Combine that with the contradictory justifications from APD administrators -- disavowing their officers' activities while simultaneously justifying them -- not to mention the evasive refusal to provide documentation to the judge, and it's difficult not to find understated the judge's observation that, at the very least, the episode caused the department to "lose a little bit of the dignity that they should be carrying themselves with." 

Nicely understated. More, including photos of Shannon Dowell and a dozen of links on this coverage, from Occupy Austin.

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