St. Paul police adopt new guidelines ahead of RNC

St. Paul  Chief John Harrington
St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

(AP) - The St. Paul Police Department has adopted new guidelines for investigating groups that exercise their free-speech rights, but says the change isn't linked to the upcoming Republican National Convention.

Civil liberties advocates say they're skeptical, given that Police Chief John Harrington signed off on the policy just last month.

Bruce Nestor, an attorney for anti-war groups organizing protests for when the GOP gathers in downtown St. Paul Sept. 1-4, the timing "clearly indicates" a connection.

"I'm not surprised by the policy, but I think it represents the preparations of St. Paul police to be engaged in surveillance and infiltration of groups that engage in First Amendment activity," Nestor said.

As first reported by the Star Tribune on Monday, the policy governs when and how St. Paul police may investigate - and infiltrate - groups or individuals that assert their freedom of speech.

It says the department won't launch or participate in investigations or information gathering against groups or individuals based solely on their lawful exercise of their constitutional rights.

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It says any investigations into otherwise protected activities "shall be based on an existing criminal predicate or the reasonable suspicion that unlawful acts have occurred or may occur."

The Democratic National Convention will be in Denver, Aug. 25-28. The Denver Police Department's operations manual doesn't currently have a section similar to St. Paul's new policy.

A Denver police spokeswoman, Detective Sharon Hahn, said in an e-mail that "information is unavailable at this time" on whether her department is planning one.

Doug Linkhart, a Denver City Council member and chairman of its safety committee, said Denver police don't have a new policy in the works as far as he knows. He said protest groups tried to get the council to adopt a resolution last fall to ensure their freedom of speech is protected, but it was never introduced.

St. Paul's policy does not specifically refer to the convention, and department spokesman Tom Walsh said it was not timed to the event. He said it was part of a revision of the department's entire policy manual, something he said the department does periodically.

Walsh said the policy does not give investigators any authority they didn't have before.

"We're not saying that we are infiltrating or investigating groups," Walsh said. "What we have said from the beginning is people who come to St. Paul to exercise their First Amendment rights are welcome to do so. People who come here to commit illegal acts will be arrested."

Walsh didn't rule out the possibility that St. Paul police might travel outside the city if they're conducting an investigation that's permitted under the policy.

"We're not going to limit our ability to conduct investigations," he said.

Police in New York were criticized for sending undercover officers around the U.S. and to Europe to monitor activists who were planning protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention. But Walsh said that's not what St. Paul has in mind.

"We've been saying from the very beginning that we are not following the New York model," Walsh said.

Citing New York and other cases, Nestor did say St. Paul's policy "appears to recognize some of the most outrageous abuses of the past," noting that it bans undercover officers from deliberate attempts to sow distrust between members of groups or from advocating illegal activity.

But while the policy requires at least some evidence of plans for unlawful activity for a group to be targeted, Nestor said that activity could include something as simple as obstructing traffic, blocking a sidewalk or trespassing.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said he was concerned because the department had been saying it had no intention of investigating protest groups.

He said the department still might not have such intentions, but it now has a written policy on how to do it.

Samuelson also expressed concern that that policy puts most authority in the hands of the commander of the Department's Special Investigations Unit and the police chief, with no requirement for outside review.

If police are going to investigate a member of the mainstream media, such as a reporter, under the policy they are required to consult with a prosecuting attorney and comply with state and federal shield laws.

But that leaves out new media, such as political bloggers, and potentially even the ethnic press, said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media law and ethics at the University of Minnesota. She said it's not clear how police would draw the distinction between who's mainstream and who's not.

"The First Amendment applies to anybody who's engaged in expressive activity," Kirtley said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)