Sister Antonia Anthony, 74, found herself in the files, characterized as a member of a “criminal extremist group.”
Great-grandmother Helen Henry, 82, was in there too, with the notation that her Toyota sedan was affixed with a “Free Leonard Peltier” bumper sticker.
Both had aroused the suspicions of the Denver Police Department, which has maintained dossiers on about 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations that it believed bore watching.
When the files were discovered this spring, the ensuing uproar, from the mayor on down, compelled the department to get rid of them. But first, the department was advised, the subjects of files should be given a copy so they could learn what the police had on them.
The release of the so-called spy files began last week, and more than 300 people jammed police headquarters, wondering whether they were the focus of police intelligence. Representatives of 70 groups also showed up.
Some with police files were angered by what they said was an invasion of privacy. It harked back to longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s extensive files on the rich, famous and politically active; it also echoed concerns that America’s war on terrorism has turned back the clock on civil liberties.
Others dismissed the files’ contents as laughable.
“It’s the KGB-meets-Keystone Kops,” said Stephen Nash, the subject of an 18-page file because he is active in Amnesty International and two local police watchdog organizations.
Anthony’s apparent offense: The Catholic peace and justice advocate is co-founder of the local Chiapas Coalition, campaigning for the civil rights of the indigenous people in that Mexican state. In her file, police noted that her organization was working to overthrow the Mexican government.
“All we’re trying to do is raise consciousness about how U.S. economic, military and political policy decisions are having an impact on the lives of the indigenous people of Chiapas,” she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union learned of the existence of the files in March as it was pursuing a civil-rights lawsuit. The ACLU is now suing the city over the database, with depositions in the federal civil case scheduled to begin this week. Because of the pending litigation, city officials are saying little.
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, said the gravity of the files, developed largely by police monitoring attendance at rallies, protests and political activist meetings, should not be discounted.
“People should be able to participate in a peaceful rally without fear their names will wind up in police files, falsely branded as criminal extremists,” he said. “Individuals will be less likely to join a protest or rally if they fear they will be branded and smeared with these false labels as being considered sinister, dangerous or deviant.”
Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb, empathetic because he was identified in FBI files as a young political activist, convened a panel of three judges that reviewed each file and concluded that many should be purged as useless and improper. Only those that contain bona fide information pertaining to criminal investigations, as deemed by an independent analyst, will be kept.
“It was very clear that something went wrong here,” said mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson. “The obvious downside of this entire thing, beyond the absurdity of keeping files on people who shouldn’t be in files, is that it fuels people who already are so full of conspiracy theories, in an era of government distrust.
“Intelligence work is necessary, but has to be done right and in a way in which civil liberties aren’t trampled.”
The computer database was created in 1999 when the Police Department culled about 100,000 “Rolodex records” compiled since the early 1950s and transferred the most recent ones into its computer system.
After the ACLU’s revelations, city officials ordered the files purged from police computers, after first making them available through Nov. 1 to those named in the files.
Critics worry that people won’t know whether files exist on them unless they personally request the information. C.L. Harmer, spokeswoman for the city’s Public Safety Department, said that those named in the files are not being notified for fear of contacting the wrong person.
Sheepish city officials admit the files reflect a police intelligence strategy gone awry, exacerbated by a new computer system that prompted poorly trained clerks to mischaracterize organizations as “criminal extremists” because it was one of the few options in the software’s menu.
“We are not as mean-spirited as some might think,” Harmer said. “There was a fracture in the computerized database” that is now being corrected.
The Police Department has responded coolly to the controversy.
“We’ve issued no oops-we-blew-it statement,” said Lt. Steven Carter, department spokesman. “We’re releasing the files because they don’t need to be stored any longer.”
He said that the department will still maintain intelligence files on people who are suspected or convicted of criminal activity, but that the new criteria for inclusion will be strict. An outside consultant will review the files on a quarterly basis to ensure that only those with a criminal nexus will be maintained, Harmer said.
The files have angered some, but have been applauded by others.
“You’ve got to worry about our freedom and right to privacy when you hear about this,” said Doc Green, who tends an upscale downtown bar. “I know we’re at war, but our civil liberties are slipping away.”
Businessman Paul Rusin said he wasn’t bothered by the files. “If the police are keeping records of protesters, that’s part of their job,” he said. “People who are vocal should expect to be looked at. If they protest at the state Capitol, the police will want to know who and what they’re dealing with. The times are changing, my friend.”
Henry, the great-grandmother, was ambivalent about her inclusion in the files. She’s not even sure why she was of police interest, but she had organized the Unitarian Universalist Network on Indigenous Affairs.
Her Peltier bumper sticker supported the American Indian activist who is serving two consecutive life sentences for the 1975 killings of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Having a file “might have bothered me 40 years ago, but it doesn’t now,” Henry said. “The police are just doing their job.”