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Spy Files Downplayed

Council asks few questions, gets few answers on intelligence gathering



When members of the Colorado Springs City Council first learned that Springs police had helped the Denver Police Department build its infamous "spy files," several council members said they wanted to ask tough questions and get to the bottom of the matter.

The council members voiced concern after it was revealed last November that Springs police had gathered intelligence on local activists participating in peaceful demonstrations and shared the information with Denver police, who included it in its intelligence database alongside files on groups labeled "criminal extremists."

But on Monday, when Colorado Springs Police Chief Luis Velez presented the council with a long-awaited briefing on the police practices, the council members backed off -- asking few direct questions and receiving little new information.

In a puzzling move afterward, several elected officials said that they weren't satisfied with the answers they had gotten.

"I want a further explanation," said Councilman Jim Null after the meeting.

Councilman Richard Skorman, likewise, said he was "still concerned" about the matter.

Moments earlier, however, Null had told Velez he was "comfortable" that police appeared to have followed proper procedures, and added, "I think you've responded well."

And Skorman, though he'd asked more questions than any other council member, nonetheless had struck an apologetic note in questioning Velez during the open forum.

"I'm sorry to keep putting you on the spot," Skorman told the chief, later adding, "You've done a good job today of explaining."

Total softball

The council members' inquiry -- or lack thereof -- disappointed several people in attendance who had been the subject of local police spying.

"It was totally softball," complained Bill Sulzman, a leading local peace activist. "They were just massaging the police witness."

The council requested no further action, and Velez said afterward that he considered the matter to be closed. "There's nothing that I feel that we need to do different."

The existence of Denver's spy files became public knowledge last spring, when it was revealed that the Denver Police Department had kept intelligence files on some 3,200 groups and individuals -- from peace activists to pro-gun groups -- many of whom had done nothing more than participate in constitutionally protected political speech.

Denver Mayor Wellington Webb ordered an inquiry into the police department's practices, and the Denver City Council passed a resolution against spying on peaceful activists.

Meanwhile, the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Denver, arguing that keeping files on law-abiding activists creates a "chilling effect" on their First Amendment rights. As part of that lawsuit, the ACLU has filed a subpoena asking to see what similar files Colorado Springs police may be keeping or may have shared with Denver police.

Sharing information

Documents that surfaced in November show that Colorado Springs police helped Denver police gather intelligence for the "spy files." In one instance in 1999, local police monitored a peaceful demonstration at Peterson Air Force Base, wrote down the license-plate numbers of some 30 people in attendance, and forwarded the information to Denver.

The news of local police collaboration triggered Monday's briefing. However, Velez did not directly address his department's involvement, instead giving a general presentation on intelligence-gathering policies.

According to Velez, the department follows federal regulations and collects intelligence on people only when there's a "reasonable suspicion" that they may be connected to criminal activity. However, if a suspect is participating in a demonstration along with several non-suspects, it may be justified to monitor everyone in that crowd, he argued.

Colorado Springs City Manager Lorne Kramer, who was the Colorado Springs Police Chief when the spying took place, did suggest Monday that if Denver police are indeed abusing information received from the Springs, then perhaps the information should no longer be shared.

Press did the job

Skorman was the only council member who asked Velez on Monday about specific instances of surveillance. However, when Skorman inquired about the 1999 demonstration at Peterson, Velez declined to answer, saying, "I can't comment on that specific incident." Skorman didn't ask him why.

After the meeting, Velez told the Independent that he couldn't comment because all intelligence information is confidential.

He did say, however, that an internal police department inquiry had concluded that no procedures were violated in connection with the incident. He declined to say whether a full-fledged, official internal investigation was launched.

Another council member who has been critical of the police's conduct, Charles Wingate, was absent during Monday's briefing. He said he had to leave the meeting to pick up his son from school.

Councilman Ted Eastburn, who had also expressed concerns, posed no questions over the police practices during the briefing.

Eastburn later said he believed that press coverage of the matter had done a sufficient job by prompting the police department to examine its own practices.

"This has become an issue that's precipitated a lot of scrutiny internally," Eastburn said.

Eastburn said he had not been briefed on the details of any such internal scrutiny, but added, "I just inherently trust the integrity of the police chief and the city manager."

-- Terje Langeland

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