Understanding APD's Homeland Security Unit
Over the past year, Copwatchers have documented the regular presence of plainclothed APD officers filming protests, rallies, and political events in Atlanta. It was quickly determined that these were officers assigned to the APD's Homeland Security Unit (HSU)( http://atlanta.indymedia.org/local/homeland-security-caught-monitoring-o...). Earlier this week, the APD's Plan of Action for the Occupy Atlanta protests was released to the public (http://atlanta.indymedia.org/local/atlanta-police-departments-occupy-atl...). Almost immediately the report, which is dated October 10th, 2011, tells us that "The Atlanta Police Department Homeland Security Unit has been actively monitoring demonstration planning by the group [...]"
Although the ubiquitous surveillance at public political events is no longer surprising, most Atlantans, politically active or not, probably know very little about what exactly the HSU does, what their role in the Department is, or who they are. Fortunately, Copwatch of East Atlanta was able to aquire the APD's Standard Operating Procedure manuals (SOP) through an open records request earlier this year (http://www.copwatchoea.org/content/apd-policy-manual-published). The documents make numerous references to the HSU, and outline their responsibilities, policies, and their place within the structure of the Department. The following is a summary profile of the Unit, accompanied by documentation of HSU surveillance of political demonstrations.
What is the HSU?
The Homeland Security Unit is not a federal group and is not directly connected to the Department of Homeland Security, but is rather under the control of the local police department. It is an intelligence/surveillance unit inside the Special Enforcement Section (SES) of APD.
"SES is responsible for identifying, controlling, and reducing or preventing criminal activity through intelligence or enforcement activities in areas which include but are not limited to: [...] criminal gangs, arson, counter-terrorism, [...] subversive activities, [...] civil disorders and terrorism." (APD.SOP.5030.3.1 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...)
The section includes the "A.P.E.X." paramilitary SWAT unit (a.k.a. Red Dog the Redux) and is independent from the six zoned command structure responsible for routine patrols of the city. The HSU is placed within this section, but is also comprised of four squads under the control of the HSU Commander. The Cyber Squad, Gangs Squad, Intelligence/Organized Crime, and the Electronic Surveillance Squad (APD.SOP.1010.4.5.4.3 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...).
The HSU and Protests
The HSU is also responsible for managing the Extrication Team ("X-Team"), which is "an on-call, multi-agency task force, specially trained and equipped to safely and efficiently remove protestors and protestor devices" (APD.SOP.3183.1 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...) such as sleeping dragons (devices used for locking protesters together for civil-disobedience actions) and other blockading tactics involving hardware which must be cut with power tools. The teams are comprised of members of the Atlanta Police Department, Atlanta Fire Rescue, and the Atlanta Department of Corrections.
It's clear from their own documents in addition to on the ground observations that persistant monitoring of political activity is a primary function of the HSU. The information gathered is intended to be shared within the department, as well as with state and federal agencies, who in turn share their own intelligence with the unit.
The SOP's do not contain detailed policies regarding civil rights or privacy restrictions other than general guidelines that "Surveillance must be conducted within legal limits" (APD.SOP.5030.4.5.4.1 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...). However there are specific restrictions and prohibitions regarding what kind of information the unit can collect, and about whom. For example, intelligence is not to be gathered on a person solely on the basis of their support for unpopular causes, their ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation, or their religious or political affiliations (APD.SOP.5030.4.4.1 ). "[Department employees assigned to the SES are not allowed to] Collect intelligence data or information relating to the personal habits or predilections and non-criminal activities of any individual, unless such information is part of an officially documented subject profile or background investigation." (APD.SOP.5030.4.4.2.4 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...)
There are effectively no legal limits on surveillance in public places or public information sources because there is no "reasonable expectation of privacy", and so the HSU is at great liberty to monitor and collect information from these sources. The SOPs relating to the SES recommend that "Covert surveillances of social gatherings and events frequented by persons engaged in criminal activity often provide indicators of inter and intra-group associations. Surveillance during VIP operations and certain political activities such as rallies, etc., may be used in threat analysis and to assess potential for civil disturbance or other violence." (APD.SOP.5030.4.5.4.2/3 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...).
Something to note is that HSU investigators who monitor public events are not “undercover” nor are they “infiltrators”. They are public officers governed by the same work rules as all other APD officers, and that includes being required to identify themselves upon request (APD.SOP.2010.4.2.23 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...). The names of the officers pictured below were all acquired this way. Though sometimes they refuse and continue pretending that they are not police, they often will identify themselves without challenge.
Investigate ALL the Crimes!
As mentioned before, the HSU is composed of four squads; Cyber Crime, Gangs, Intelligence/Organized Crime (I/OC), and Surveillance. (APD.SOP.1010.4.5.4.3 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...)
The exotic-sounding "Cyber Squad" appears to be mostly concerned with processing and storing electronic evidence, performing computer forensics, and lending specialized assistance to other investigations which involve computers.
The Electronic Surveillance Squad "maintains the departments surveillance equipment [...] and provides surveillance support for other investigations."
Organized Crime is defined by the SOPs as "Participation by members of an organized group or street gang in any illegal activity [...]"(APD.SOP.5030.5.5 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...).
"Criminal Gang Activity" and those associated with it are monitored by the Gangs Squad. What is interesting though, is that the definition for "criminal gang activity" (O.C.G.A. 16-15-3 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...) also includes, among a litany of crimes normally associated with street gangs, activity made illegal by the anti-subversion laws (O.C.G.A. 16-11-4 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...) which include printing and/or disseminating anti-government literature and advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. Government. Criteria for being a gang member is essentially participation in any kind of criminal activity as a group, whether formal or informal. An explicit group identity and use of particular colors/style of dress, or symbols to communicate group membership are all that is needed to define people as part of a gang (APD.SOP.5070.5 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...). Even if a person doesn't meet those criteria, they may still be labeled as a "gang associate" by having close relationships with those who do.
Once a person is identified as a gang member they will be targeted "for special surveillance and special enforcement" (APD.SOP.5070.4.2.1 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...). And since monitoring social events is a good way to determine inter and intra-group associations, "The GTF, in conjunction with the Intelligence Unit, will pay special attention to festivals, sporting events, parades, funerals of gang members, and other special events in order to monitor gang presence and to deter violent criminal behavior." (APD.SOP.5070.4.2.5 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...) Information gathered on gang members and their activity is then shared "systematically with other law enforcement agencies" (APD.SOP.5070.4.2.5.2 https://ia601203.us.archive.org/29/items/AtlantaPoliceDepartmentPolicyMa...)
The picture that emerges for us is of a generalized intelligence unit responsible for gathering and analyzing information on patterns and trends of all types of crime, not just politically subversive crimes or legitimate terrorist activity. Surveilling protests for potential civil disturbances are just one aspect of what the HSU does. Disseminating information is an obvious corollary to gathering it in the first place, and the HSU exists in a network of integrated intelligence operations at the local, state, and federal levels specifically so that intelligence gathered locally can be shared throughout the law enforcement community. So, while the HSU is not a federal unit, it acts as a proxy for federal agencies.
The definitions for "organized crime" and "criminal gang activity" seem so broad as to allow for "special surveillance and special enforcement" to be applied to almost anyone who is caught committing crimes with a group. Are anarchists, who openly advocate against the government, wear black, and have anarchist tattoos considered part of a criminal gang engaged in subversive activities? Does being part of a protest movement that engages in illegal camping in downtown parks make you involved with "organized crime"? Do these distinctions even matter when any and all trends of activity are constantly monitored for potential threats to the public? The disturbing thing about the HSU is not that they are spying on activists, but that they are spying on everyone who may potentially commit a crime, and that the general functions of criminal investigation have been subsumed into a nationally integrated intelligence network which was originally sold to the public as a way to combat terrorism, but is now combating day to day criminal activity.
The following are some identified and unidentified police surveilling protests over the past year.
January 27th, 2012 - Occupy Glen Iris rally at a Chase Bank
January 2012 - Occupy Atlanta rally at Wells Fargo
Officer McManus Badge #5308
At a rally against Wells Fargo bank, January 2012
At a rally against police brutality, October 22nd, 2012.
At a rally and march in solidarity with Gaza, November 24th, 2012.
At a Public Service Commission meeting monitoring anti-nuke activists.
Unidentified man taking pictures of demonstrators at a vigil in memory of Troy Davis, Sept 21st, 2012.
Unidentified man claiming to be a blogger named “Sam Colburn” taking pictures with a high-quality photo camera at an anti-police brutality protest on October 22nd, 2012.
The Ford Taurus.
HSU officers can usually be detected by the presence of not-so-inconspicuous Ford Taurus' parked near an event, or following at a distance behind a march. They come in a various bland and ambiguous colors. Most marked APD squad cars have a license plate number that begins with the letters GV. These vehicles do not.