The Houston arrest of six members of Occupy Austin during a 2011 port action – part of a national solidarity day – led to the discovery last year that three Austin Police officers had infiltrated the movement. The protesters were charged with "possession of a criminal instrument" in their use of "lockboxes" – PVC "sleeves" that allow protesters to link themselves together. According to the Austin Occupiers, police officers Shannon Dowell, Deek Moore, and Rick Reza encouraged the decision to create and use the device, effectively entrapping the protesters into committing a felony. Those charges were later dismissed, but one question continues to nag the APD: Were as many as six officers surveilling the actions of local Occupiers?
According to attorney Greg Gladden, who represented Austin protester Ronnie Garza, documents given to the judge in Garza's case indicated that at least three other officers were involved. Those additional names were not revealed, however, because the judge ruled that they had played no part in the "manufacture, adaptation, purchase, or delivery" of the lockboxes. "We still do not know what their role was in this," Gladden said.
APD Chief of Staff David Carter claims that the three named officers were the only ones directly involved with the Occupy movement, but that additional officers had been identified as potential backup. On Feb. 22, Garza released a packet of emails regarding Occupy Austin activities received as part of the criminal case. In an overview on the Occupy Austin website, Garza writes that it appears the six undercover officers were among more than two dozen APD officials involved in keeping tabs on OA.
Gladden says there is information still undetermined, including the extent of federal agency surveillance. For Garza's case, Gladden subpoenaed records from the Austin Regional Intelligence Center and the Department of Public Safety. Documents provided by DPS were almost entirely redacted, leaving open the questions of who was monitoring Occupy Austin and why.
Gladden says he's considering filing a federal Freedom of Information Act request and a federal civil rights suit against the APD and others. Police are "supposed to be using the ... fusion center to [investigate] domestic terrorism, not to make the world safe from peaceful sit-ins. I think the [APD] officers' misbehavior was intended to chill [the Occupiers'] First Amendment right of free speech and assembly."
Former APD Assistant Chief Sean Mannix explained last fall that, according to APD, the undercover officers were working inside OA in order to safeguard the protesters. Nonetheless, Chief Art Acevedo said in September, the department would conduct a review to ward against any future incidents. Carter says the department has completed that review, having concluded that the officers acted in "good faith" and did not entrap protesters. He continued that the department will not rule out the possibility of any future "surveillance operations" in "unusual cases like this." Officers assigned would come from the department's Organized Crime Division with vigilant oversight. And all future surveillance operations of this type will first be vetted by either the APD chief or the chief of staff, with county prosecutors consulted as well.
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