Credit: Photo Illustration: Sue Kwong; photos: Scott Olson, Mohammed Alnaser

At least one thing became clear last year during the trial of the so-called NATO Three: the Chicago Police Department spied on citizens exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.

The three defendants were acquitted of terrorism but convicted of mob action and arson charges, an outcome that largely hinged on the testimony of two undercover Chicago police officers nicknamed “Mo” and “Gloves,” who had posed as radicals to infiltrate local activist groups. As prosecutors continued to defend the case in the aftermath of the trial, we wondered: Have the police been conducting surveillance on other protesters and activist organizations around town?

The answer is yes.

Since 2009 the Chicago Police Department has opened at least six investigations that involved spying on citizens, internal police records show. Four of the investigations were launched during the first term of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

We acquired the records from the department through a Freedom of Information Act request made last November. Specifically, we asked for copies of the paperwork required when police open what they call “First Amendment-related investigations,” which are “prompted by or based upon a person’s speech or other expression,” according to department rules. These investigations could include undercover officers, infiltration of protest groups, or electronic surveillance such as wiretaps or StingRay cell-phone tracking devices that can intercept calls, texts, and e-mails.

In response, the police department sent 26 pages of records in which most of the essential information was blacked out—including sections showing who was being investigated, what the justification was, and which methods police used.

Nonetheless, the heavily redacted records do offer a glimpse of what the police have been up to.

For instance, on March 14, 2009, when former mayor Richard M. Daley was in office, the police launched an “intelligence gathering” operation that was authorized through April 13 of that year.

As with all of these investigations, it was approved by some of the highest-ranking officials in the department, including the general counsel for the police superintendent, who was then Jody Weis.

The names of the people being investigated are blacked out in the records we received, but it was authorized just two weeks before Chicago hosted a delegation from the International Olympic Committee, which ultimately decided which city would get the games in 2016. Daley’s Olympics proposal had stirred up opposition from a number of quarters, including police officers upset about delays in getting a new contract. When the IOC delegation arrived on April 3, 2009, roughly 1,000 off-duty officers formed a ring around City Hall chanting, “No contract, no Olympics!” Were the police actually spying on police? Only the police know.

The next known investigation was requested on October 26, 2009, and lasted for just one day. That happened to coincide with a convention of the American Bankers Association in the Gold Coast. While the bankers were in town, protests were held throughout the city. One demonstration against mortgage policies tied to thousands of foreclosures featured Reverend Jesse Jackson and Senator Richard Durbin.

The police requested another one-day investigation on January 20, 2011. Again, the subjects and rationale were redacted from our copies of the records. But it’s possibly related to a January 21 visit by Chinese president Hu Jintao, who was being ushered around town by Mayor Daley. Hu’s visit brought out protesters who objected to China’s occupation of Tibet. The police investigation was officially terminated at 10 PM on January 21, a few hours after the protesters disbanded.

Police spying really picked up later in 2011, according to the records, after newly elected Mayor Emanuel and his old boss President Obama announced that NATO would hold a summit in Chicago the following spring. Within weeks, anti-NATO protesters around the country were vowing to hold demonstrations in Chicago during the summit.

On September 27, 2011, the general counsel for police superintendent Garry McCarthy authorized an undercover operation into NATO protesters, though the summit was months away. The section of the records listing the specific people or groups targeted by the investigation was left blank.

Then, on October 14, a simultaneous undercover operation was launched into the small but vociferous Occupy Chicago movement that had camped out in the city’s financial district and in Grant Park. In their authorization forms, the police said they needed to “determine whether participants are planning activities that involve violence, property destruction or large scale civil disorder.”

Two days later, Chicago police moved into Grant Park and arrested about 200 Occupy activists who were camped there. A Cook County judge later vacated the arrests on the grounds that they were unconstitutional.

Even as the Occupy and NATO investigations were under way, police officials proposed a third surveillance operation. That request was made on January 12, 2012, and would have focused on three people or groups—but we don’t know who they were, because the names were again blacked out in our copies. McCarthy’s general counsel turned down the request for the investigation. We have no evidence that it went forward.

The police department officially closed its Occupy investigation on January 19, 2012. “As of this time, the Occupy Movement has had a significant lack of participants,” the termination notice says in one of the few sentences that was not redacted in the 26 pages of records we received.

In a letter to the Illinois attorney general's office, a lawyer for the Chicago Police Department blacked out even his explanation of why the department won't release key information about police surveillance.
In a letter to the Illinois attorney general’s office, a lawyer for the Chicago Police Department blacked out even his explanation of why the department won’t release key information about police surveillance.

By the time police wrapped up the Occupy investigation, the surveillance of potential NATO protesters was in full effect. Undercover police Mo and Gloves—whose real names are Mehmet Uygun and Nadia Chikko—”gathered intelligence and information in various locations, including coffee shops, meetings, protests, rallies and concerts in an effort to root out any plans for criminal activity before, during or after the NATO summit,” according to documents later filed in court by prosecutors.

For a while, Mo and Gloves infiltrated the movement against Mayor Emanuel’s closure of six mental health clinics. Mo was even arrested at a rally outside the shuttered Woodlawn clinic and hauled to a jail cell. There he was handcuffed to Matthew Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a leading mental health activist.

“He was trying to get me to say something incendiary,” Ginsberg-Jaeckle told the Reader last summer. “He kept saying, ‘We need to take it to the next level.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you mean. But whatever it is—this is not a place to discuss it.’ I mean, we’re in a jail cell.”

On May 16, 2012, police accompanied by agents from the FBI arrested three out-of-town protesters—Brent Betterly, Brian Church, and Jared Chase—who became known as the NATO Three. Betterly, Church, and Chase were charged with conspiring to commit terrorism, primarily based on testimony from Mo and Gloves, who said the three had plotted to attack police stations and President Obama’s campaign headquarters and shoot an arrow at Mayor Emanuel’s house.

The attorneys for the defense were convinced that the spying operation was far more extensive than the work of Mo and Gloves. Prosecutors initially listed other police officers as potential witnesses in the case, and records indicated that FBI agents had also been working on surveillance. In a court filing, defense attorneys asked to see additional police intelligence reports. But Cook County judge Thaddeus Wilson rejected the motion, saying it went beyond the charges against the NATO Three.

The three protesters ended up sitting in jail for more than a year before their case came to trial. In February 2014 a jury cleared them of the terrorism charges, and in April, Wilson sentenced each of them to between five and eight years in prison, much less than the 14 years sought by state’s attorney Anita Alvarez.

That was the end of the NATO Three case—but not the end of police spying.

Police officials authorized another investigation on November 7 of last year. Four individuals or groups were listed as subjects, but their names were blacked out in the records provided to us.

The authorization came two days after a rally against police shootings was held outside police headquarters in Bronzeville.

Organizer Page May believes undercover officers have attended meetings of We Charge Genocide, a group that coordinated the rally outside police headquarters. She says she’s also seen police filming public protests since the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, last year. “It seemed really ominous,” she says. “I’m a black, queer woman, and this is the thing that scares me the most about the organizing I do.”

Chicago Police Department spokesman Marty Maloney says police work to protect free speech rights and have closed down streets for protest marches in recent months.

“CPD cannot specifically discuss open investigations,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement. “However, we always ensure any investigations are done to further protect residents’ rights and conducted in full compliance with the Constitution. In no way does CPD ever target those critical of the police.”

The department’s own rules state that surveillance of protest groups should be undertaken only if they would serve a “reasonable law enforcement purpose,” which can include any investigation “intended to address unlawful conduct.” Officials must then spell out the purpose and scope of the surveillance before getting approval from the police superintendent’s general counsel.

After we received the documents, we asked the Illinois attorney general’s office to review whether the police department was violating the FOIA law by redacting the reports.

A couple weeks later, a lawyer for the state ordered police officials to explain how releasing records of closed investigations could “obstruct an ongoing investigation” or “jeopardize the safety of undercover personnel.”

In response, a police department lawyer wrote: “It is also the position of the Department that redacted information in the records . . . [is] exempt from disclosure.”

He went on to explain his reasoning by writing that—well, we don’t know what he wrote, because the explanation was also blacked out.

In other words, citizens don’t even have the right to know why they can’t know why police are spying on them.