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G.W. SchulzBack to OpinionG.W. Schulz

Frank Rizzo and Pennsylvania’s 56-year legacy of police spying

Students of Pennsylvania history thought something sounded familiar when they learned recently that the state’s Office of Homeland Security was paying a private contractor thousands of dollars to compile “intelligence” on dangerous elements, including environmentalists, gay and lesbian organizations and even a nonprofit tied to the governor that promoted education.

Bulletins filled with descriptions of upcoming festivals, parades and demonstrations were ostensibly designed to keep the state police aware of potential terrorist and criminal threats. But Gov. Ed Rendell’s prompt apology once news of the surveillance became public, plus recent admissions by a state police director that the memos were unreliable and read like grocery-stores tabloids, turned the contract into a seriously questionable use of taxpayer money, at best.

Philadelphia police commissioner Frank Rizzo in 1970. Photo: AP/Warren Winterbottom

Amid the fall out, Pennsylvania’s homeland security director resigned. Fifty-six years later, it seemed, authorities there had learned little from the infamous antics of a controversial police commissioner and eventual mayor who led a campaign of spying, harassment and intelligence collection to rid Philadelphia of its loose morals and the scourge of communism.

Nicknamed “Rizzo the Raider” for his headline-grabbing assaults on gambling parlors and illegal bars, Frank Rizzo set out to sterilize “the city that loves you back,” as Philadelphia is sometimes called. The team of officers Rizzo used to help carry out his approach to law enforcement was known as the Civil Defense Squad.

Deceased American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer Frank Donner described it in a 1990 book on local police intelligence units during the latter half of the 20th century nicknamed “Red Squads” for their obsession with communism.

Created as a response to the growing trend of public demonstrations at that time, the unit in Philadelphia became known for its compulsive intelligence gathering. Team members developed information about the personal life and background of student activists, black radicals, noisy alternative newspaper publishers and virtually anyone linked to them who may or may not have shared their positions.

As Donner tells it, Rizzo and an aid boasted to NBC reporters in 1970 that the police department had added some 18,000 names to index cards forming what constituted an intelligence database back then. Each card, they proclaimed, featured a name, address, image and small description of the individual. The back listed dates and locations of pickets they’d participated in along with the groups involved. Attitudes that crisscrossed the political spectrum were included, the duo was sure to mention.

It should be emphasized that Donner was an ACLU lawyer with a viewpoint and he didn’t hide his contempt for Rizzo. Some groups during the period weren’t shy about showcasing their militancy in public by defiantly brandishing firearms, donning fatigues and indulging in revolutionary slogans and rhetoric, as if they really expected some sort of political insurrection to break out at any moment. The Boomers had a tendency toward melodrama.

But then, like now, police singled out political speech rather than criminal conduct. Observing fundamental legal concepts like reasonable suspicion and probable cause that overlook political expression has the distinct advantage of absolving police when it does become necessary to take action.

Rizzo wasn’t alone and similar scenarios occurred in city after city before  Red Squads eventuallyreached heights the public could no longer tolerate. Many of the units were dismantled, declawed or restricted by new federal rules on data collection and settlement agreements signed after years of legal wrangling over civil-rights abuses.

New city administrators in 1980 promised the Philadelphia Police Department’s “countersubversive file collection” had been destroyed. According to Donner, officials agreed to gather intelligence only where there was a “potential for violence,” and records from demonstrations would be thrown out if no criminal activity took place.

The Sept. 11 hijackings, however, inspired a resurgence of local police intelligence teams, this time targeting terrorists. Proponents of the resurrected trend, termed “intelligence-led policing,” vow things have changed after half-a-century of evolution in law enforcement.

Reams of testimony before Congress by national police leaders and senior homeland security officials these days follow a certain script in which the sundry intelligence programs and databases created since Sept. 11 are lauded as essential to the war on terror while the speaker is sure to mention that powerful safeguards are in place for protecting privacy and civil liberties.

Both opponents and defenders of more aggressive intelligence collection warned of fallout from abuses after the attacks when it quickly became clear government would need to break down barriers to the exchange of critical information about terrorists. The problem is that new apologies are becoming predictable, and Ed Rendell’s rush to condemn what occurred in Pennsylvania suggests politicians know the public is tiring of endless revelations.

A nationwide map unveiled by the ACLU this summer contains countless other examples since the decade’s start of spy scandals becoming publicized.

So now the question is this: What will it take after half-a-century to balance the crime-fighting tools police need with the grand American tradition of public protest? Until an answer arrives, we’ll wait to hear another apology.

G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 to launch its ongoing homeland security project. Read the project’s blog, Elevated Risk.