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Red Squads Return To Chicago

In a controversial decision, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to the city's request to modify a 1981 consent decree that had reined in the Chicago Police Department's notorious Red Squad. The unit spied on, infiltrated and harassed political groups. The court's decision is a major civil rights setback for Chicago.
Police spying rules eased

January 12, 2001

BY FRAN SPIELMAN AND STEVE WARMBIR STAFF REPORTERS

Chicago police should have more freedom to investigate terrorist and hate groups because threats from them are more pressing than past police spying abuses, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

In a controversial decision, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to the city's request to modify a 1981 consent decree that had reined in the Chicago Police Department's notorious Red Squad. The unit spied on, infiltrated and harassed political groups.

Under the consent decree, police could not start spying on a group until they had a reasonable belief a crime was occurring.

But with a terrorist or hate group, "if the investigation cannot begin until the group is well on its way toward the commission of terrorist acts, the investigation may come too late to prevent the acts or to identify the perpetrators," Appellate Court Judge Richard Posner wrote.

"The decree impedes efforts by the police to cope with the problems of today because earlier generations of police coped improperly with the problems of yesterday."

Police and city officials praised the decision, while civil rights groups said it gutted an important safeguard.
"I think it's a significant setback for these guidelines that have been in place protecting the people of Chicago these many years," ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said. The ACLU is considering an appeal.

Tom Needham, chief of staff for police Supt. Terry Hillard, called the decision "a tremendous victory for common sense."

"Less than 5 percent of the people currently on the police department were on the job when the city entered into this consent decree," Needham said. "There's a whole new generation of younger, better-educated police officers who can't even understand why we have these restrictions that other law enforcement agencies don't have. It's a historical relic."

The ruling was a resounding victory for Mayor Daley, who has spent four years trying to modify the consent decree, which he contends "ties the hands" of police.

As recently as last fall, violence in the Middle East prompted a Rogers Park rabbi to come under gunfire and Jewish pedestrians to be victimized by a slingshot attack.

Daley said it was an example of how the court order had hamstrung police attempts to combat hate crimes. The rabbi's attackers are still at large.

Currently, the police department is prohibited from retaining intelligence files, but now it will be able to create comprehensive databases on terrorist and hate groups.

Hillard has asked his staff to put together a committee to determine how internal orders and procedures should be rewritten.

The modified consent decree is expected to be written by U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall at the appellate court's direction. Gottschall recently rejected claims by protesters that police violated the consent decree by spying on them during the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

Corporation Counsel Mara Georges stressed the decree is not being scrapped.

Chicago police still won't be permitted to gather intelligence to harass, intimidate or prohibit activities protected by the First Amendment. And the police will still be subject to court-monitored annual audits.

"It's an entirely different atmosphere now. The city has been able to show that, for two decades, police have not engaged in such conduct."
 
 

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