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Point Austin: Occupying Occupy

APD undercover debacle embarrassed itself and Austin

By Michael King, Fri., March 29, 2013

When the news was first confirmed last year that the Austin Police Department had assigned several undercover officers (three primary, three backup) to infiltrate the Occupy Austin organization, APD officials delivered several high-minded defenses of the practice. Assistant Chief Sean Man­nix (now the Cedar Park chief) explained, "It was determined plainclothes officers blending with the surroundings was necessary for the safety of the participants and the community as a whole. The primary mission of these officers was to protect the free speech activities of those engaged in lawful protest, as well as initiating police response and action with regards to criminal activity."

A few days later, Assistant Chief David Carter spoke more specifically of the headline outcome of that infiltration: the felony arrests of several Occupiers during a December 2011 sit-down protest at the Port of Houston – deemed felonies because the demonstrators were using PVC-and-chain "dragon sleeves" that had been manufactured and supplied by the undercover officers assigned to spy on Occupy Austin.

"What we believe at this time," said Car­ter, "is that the officers truly acted in good faith and what they believe was their public duty. However, it is not clear what the plan was and if appropriate controls were followed. ... Nor­mal­ly, such actions are vetted by supervisors to ensure any undercover assignments, number one, pass legal muster, and number two, address safety concerns." (After a further review, the department exonerated its officers on the same "good faith" grounds cited by Carter.)

Contrast these careful, face-saving public statements with those of the officers directly involved on the day the arrests happened. Two of the undercovers, Officers Rick Reza and Shannon Dowell, exchanged texts with a supervisor, Lt. Gerardo (Jerry) Gonzalez. Early accounts reported at least three (eventually eight) protestors arrested on felony charges – "They all had the PVC pipes on them," reports Reza to Gonzalez. "Great news!!" responds the lieutenant. "The PVC worked! Free the 99%! thanks." Responds Reza: "No problem. That's 8 ppl we won't see for a while. Ha ha." When Dowell similarly reports the arrests, Gonzalez responds: "Thanks ... Great news! Let my people go!" It hardly sounds like either "good faith" or "protecting free speech activities" – yet that remains the APD's official position and defense.

A Circle of Folly

The texts are included in 277 pages of documents released in the aftermath of the Houston court case (along with a few more, almost entirely redacted, reflecting Texas Department of Public Safety involvement) and are available on the Occupy Austin website (www.occupyaustin.org). As a whole, the documents are not revelatory – the court had confirmed the officers' actions (leading to dismissal of the felony charges*), and, other than these texts, the most embarrassing materials are personal snapshots of the officers horsing around with the PVC pipes. Occu­pi­ers say important documents appear to be missing – maybe, but for the Houston demo days, any apparent gaps might well be explained by undocumented phone calls between Austin and Houston cops.

And it's worth noting that Occupy's pose of outraged innocence doesn't wear very well. The cadre politics routinely practiced by some Occupiers both drives away mass support and invites provocateurs, and as the local movement shrank, the influence of the predictable macho voices grew. One ludicrous result was that at certain planning meetings, undercover cops were apparently a fourth to a third of the participants – two in fact serving on the "direct action committee" charged with acquiring and assembling the dragon sleeves. The documents don't confirm OA's charge that the undercovers initiated that plan – but they do reflect that the officers jumped at the chance to build sleeves they knew could be easily defeated (purportedly for the safety of protestors and arresting officers alike).

Pull the Plug

I asked APD Chief Art Acevedo if he thinks the episode reflects well on the department, and he was quick to say no. "It was really disappointing and embarrassing," he said. "It was not consistent with the values that we espouse, or that we want our people to adhere to and carry out.

"We've taken corrective action, to the extent allowed by law" with those involved, he said. The dragon sleeves action had not been sufficiently monitored by department heads, he said, and, moreover, the behavior of the officers and supervisors directly involved violated department "decorum" ... "Decorum should be followed whether or not you're in public view. Decorum is a mindset ... and we fell short. We're collectively embarrassed about that."

On the other hand, the chief continues to defend APD's overall procedures in monitoring and responding to the protests, and congratulated both his staff and local activists for their behavior since the movement began. He defended the use of undercover officers as necessary to prevent criminal activity advocated by "a small fringe" of the movement, and he insists there was no intent on the part of the officers, in manufacturing the dragon sleeves, to turn misdemeanors into felonies, only to maintain public safety. "We're not in the business of creating felons," he insisted, and he endorsed the dismissal of those charges. He added that, as a result, APD's undercover supervisory procedures have changed, making a repeat of the Houston episode, he said, much less likely.

Acevedo continues to believe that on the whole the undercover operation was necessary – its purpose was to observe and report, not to promote criminal activity – and it successfully prevented other criminal actions, simply by creating awareness as to when vandalism or property damage was being advocated or planned. But it seems to me that when undercover officers find themselves in the position of facilitating and executing "direct action" plans for otherwise peaceful, public demonstrations – it's time to pull the plug on the entire operation.

*Clarification: Misdemeanor charges, for obstructing the roadway to the Port offices, were never in dispute; after the felony charges were dismissed, sentences were resolved to time served.

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