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Philadelphia police asked federal drug agents to ‘infiltrate’ protests last June, emails show

Critics say the request raises questions about a decades-old policy barring the Philadelphia Police Department from using its own officers to physically infiltrate protests.

Demonstrators protest social injustice by the police at the Philadelphia Museum of Art along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Saturday, June 6, 2020.
Demonstrators protest social injustice by the police at the Philadelphia Museum of Art along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Saturday, June 6, 2020.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Police Department enlisted federal drug agents to infiltrate crowds of protesters during racial justice demonstrations in the city last spring, a move that critics say may have circumvented a decades-old ban aimed at deterring police from spying on activists.

The undercover operation was made public last week by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a D.C.-based think tank that obtained emails between police and federal officials through a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act.

The emails show Philadelphia police requested the DEA support on June 2 and the operation lasted at least through June 6.

In one message, a ranking agent with the drug agency emailed colleagues and told them they’d be placed on teams to assist Philadelphia police and should “dress in a fashion that will allow you to bend [sic] in with the crowds. Masks and bag packs are a good idea.” Another from a DEA official said, “the purpose of the request is to identify protest leaders, agitators, and individuals who are inciting violence or destruction of property.”

The Philadelphia Police Department is restricted from using its own officers to infiltrate protest groups. A 1987 mayoral directive written as part of a settlement to a lawsuit requires that to conduct covert surveillance of activists, Philadelphia police must detail a threat of criminal activity in writing and obtain approval from the police commissioner and the city managing director.

That settlement was reached under former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. and does not apply to other agencies, nor lay out a process for Philadelphia police to request another agency to conduct surveillance.

City spokesperson Deana Gamble on Monday said that settlement protocol did not apply in this case and that Philadelphia police “did not partner with other agencies to physically infiltrate protests.” She categorized the DEA’s involvement as “general assistance” that was “unfortunately couched as ‘infiltration’ by the requesting officer.”

But David Kairys, the civil rights attorney who filed the 1987 suit, said Philadelphia police should not have asked another agency to infiltrate protests without the written approval required under the settlement, as the department is “still a party to doing it.”

“You’re enlisting another law enforcement agency, and you’re asking them to do it for the city,” he said. “All it does is join them with another agency, which together with them will do the same thing that the settlement prohibits.”

The managing director in June was Brian Abernathy, who announced his resignation in July as the city was under fire for its handling of the protests and unrest.

Police spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp said the request to the DEA “did not rise to the level of an ‘operation’ that required approval” by Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. He also said the request by the sergeant did not meet the department’s definition of “physical infiltration,” which is that such surveillance would target a specific group or organization.

He said police did not ask the DEA to conduct undercover surveillance of protesters, saying the request “was for undercover agents to enter the crowd to look for individuals involved in violent criminal activity or about to engage in criminal activities, who have been known to hide among lawful protesters.”

A handful of law enforcement agencies coordinated with Philadelphia police to quell the unrest, which began in the city on May 30. Some protests devolved into property destruction, arson, and commercial burglary. In addition to local police, Pennsylvania State Police, the National Guard, and other federal partners assisted, and the New York Times reported Department of Homeland Security aircraft monitored protests across the nation, including in Philadelphia.

The Justice Department in late May granted the DEA — which is typically restricted to enforcing drug crimes — temporary, sweeping authority to enforce other federal statutes and assist local police departments amid the nationwide unrest. Its work included “monitoring crowd movements to identify bad actors and criminal activity” and the nationwide authorization lasted until June 14, agency spokesperson Patricia Hartman said.

Philadelphia police were among dozens of law enforcement agencies that “requested DEA resources to help secure police buildings and federal property, and report crowd movements during that time,” Hartman said. She declined to specify how many agents were assigned.

Paul Hetznecker, one of the lawyers suing the city on behalf of dozens of protesters and residents alleging police overreach and brutality last spring, called the DEA operation “just the most recent chapter in a decades-old effort by law enforcement to target progressive political movements and criminalize dissent.”

During the Republican National Convention in 2000, Pennsylvania State Police posed as protesters and infiltrated activist groups, an operation that was later revealed in court records. Philadelphia police also said their officers had watched and photographed activists in private meetings ahead of the convention. Officials first denied that officers conducted such surveillance, then admitted to it after The Inquirer informed them that a car used during an operation was owned by the department.

A police spokesperson said at the time that the department interpreted the 1987 agreement — reached after activists sued the city for conducting undercover surveillance of protesters during the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution — to ban physical infiltration of protest groups without approval by the managing director and police commissioner, but not prohibit watching them from a public street.

Gamble said that directive was incorporated into and superseded by a new police directive ahead of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, but that the request at issue “is not the type of request contemplated by the PPD Directive or its predicate Mayoral Directive.”

The revelations of federal involvement last spring have renewed relevance this week as the nation braces for a verdict in the case against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd. Tensions were heightened further after a police officer fatally shot Daunte Wright just outside Minneapolis on April 11. Philadelphia officials are preparing for protests, and Gov. Tom Wolf has activated the National Guard.

The emails obtained by the think tank show that on June 2, a sergeant in the Philadelphia police Narcotics Unit emailed DEA Philadelphia Field Division Special Agent in Charge Jonathan A. Wilson to request he assign personnel to “infiltrate crowds for intel purposes.” The sergeant wrote that the request was “as per your conversation with Deputy commissioner Dennis Wilson.”

That afternoon, the DEA’s top Philadelphia agent emailed the agency’s second-in-command, Principal Deputy Administrator Preston L. Grubbs. Wilson wrote: “After a series of discussions with the Philadelphia Police Department (PD), the DEA Philadelphia Field Division has been requested to assist the Philadelphia PD in conducting covert surveillance from within protests in the city of Philadelphia. The purpose of the request is to identify protest leaders, agitators, and individuals who are inciting violence or destruction of property.”

Grubbs approved the operation via email minutes later.

Philadelphia police declined to identify the Narcotics Unit sergeant who made the request. Dennis Wilson was demoted last June after approving the use of tear gas on protesters who had gathered on I-676 and were trapped in a ravine.

The emails also show repeated communication with and about Philadelphia police and undercover surveillance conducted by the DEA.

On June 3, a Philadelphia police sergeant emailed a number of people whose email addresses were redacted, but who included Wilson, of the DEA. The sergeant wrote, “the overall operation is being guided by PPD Intelligence and the ground work is being coordinated by PPD Major Crimes,” adding, “Their primary area of concern is arson, explosives, fire accelerant and the suspects who use these items.”

An attachment called “Philly Riot Susepcts.pdf” was redacted. So was the name of a communications app that the sergeant wrote the “DEA doesn’t normally use” but had approval to use for this operation.

Then on June 4, a Narcotics Unit sergeant wrote to a handful of individuals with Justice Department email addresses that Philadelphia police were tracking seven protests and events scheduled for June 5 and 6, including demonstrations called “Peaceful March: South Street to City Hall,” “Mt. Airy Solidarity March,” “White Coats for Black Lives Matter,” and “Candle Light Vigil for Breonna Taylor.”

It also specifically noted that city officials expected thousands of people to descend onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on June 6 for a protest and march to City Hall. That Saturday march was one of the largest protests in Philadelphia in decades.

An email from a federal official whose identity was redacted was sent June 4 and said, “We will be continuing to assist the Philadelphia Police Department with the protests thru the weekend.”