Whether activists wanted to chalk sidewalks, gather following an arrest or even throw themselves a birthday party, members of the Omaha Police Department wanted to know.
Those are the findings of emails recently released by the ACLU of Nebraska following three separate public records requests in 2020. The civil rights organization received 1,700 emails, communications director Sam Petto said. Of those, the organization highlighted seven that show police officers discussing specific protesters or surveilling events either in plain clothes or undercover.
In its press release, the ACLU says it sent an email last week to OPD about the discovered emails. OPD has yet to respond.
“I am sure you understand there is a disturbing historical pattern of police monitoring lawful activities of Black civil rights leaders,” ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Adam Sipple wrote to OPD Chief Todd Schmaderer in an email. “Unnecessary, biased surveillance damages public trust and our shared public safety goals– especially among communities that suffer the most from police misconduct and over-policing.”
In a statement, OPD said that it stays informed of events that would impact the safety of citizens. All information was gathered through public postings on sites like Facebook, the statement reads. In addition, many protesters were unwilling to meet with Omaha police, the OPD statement reads, so officers had to gather their own information. Most of the information was disseminated for “situational awareness,” the statement also reads, rather than a physical police response or presence.
“The Omaha Police Department supports First Amendment and social justice concerns and is desirous of assisting to facilitate a peaceful event and expression of thoughts for all involved,” the statement reads. Read the full statement at the bottom of this article.
Emails released by the ACLU of Nebraska show higher level police officers had particular interest in keeping tabs on certain protesters.
Ja Keen Fox, an activist who led 36 consecutive days of protests on Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine’s home, came up several times in emails. In mid-September, an OPD officer sent Northeast Precinct Captain Mark Matuza an email alerting him about the time and location of Fox’s birthday party.
“Omaha Police Department’s unethical and wasteful surveillance of local advocates and activists is just another example, in a long line of inappropriate behavior, that demonstrates a clear lack of cultural competency and fiscal responsibility,” Fox said in the ACLU of Nebraska press release. “We see again and again that OPD will publicly comment on transparency and trust, then privately betray Omaha residents.”
OPD also talked about sending undercover officers to a sidewalk chalking event near police headquarters on the corner of 15th and Howard streets.
City Attorney Matt Kuhse emailed OPD officers that chalking the sidewalk is not considered graffiti and is therefore not illegal. But officers still wanted to watch the event.
“I need two undercover officers to participate in this event on Saturday,” emailed Lt. Trevor O’Brien. “There will be a 9:45 briefing at SE. Is anyone on C shift available? Hours roughly would be 9am-1pm.”
Officers also closely watched a legal clinic at Culxr House in July. Following a mass arrest of 120 protesters on the Farnam Street Bridge, a police officer emailed Matuza that “Intelligence is monitoring social media and there is an increase with protest chatter.” “Intelligence will continue to monitor and will advise of any posts that need attention by precinct,” the officer wrote.
Matuza advised a police cruiser to attend, but not to “sit on it.”
But other events received more scrutiny. One person asked the city to use Lewis and Clark Landing for an event called BlackOut Omaha that would bring together about 300 people. In back-and-forth emails, officers exchanged detailed information about the organizer and some of the event’s attendees, including current state senator Terrell McKinney. Ultimately officers seemed to agree the event didn’t pose a threat but they should still be prepared.
Matuza emailed: “If we get intel that this could go sideways – plan on having RDF and SWAT called out.”
His boss, Deputy Chief Scott Gray, wrote officers need to discuss the legal limitations and expectations of all organized events.
“Document all interactions with organizers,” he emailed. “Ideally, do it in person and record it on [bodyworn camera].”
The emails validate some protesters’ accusations of police targeting.
In the summer, organizer “Bear” Alexander Matthews said officers had harassed him and other organizers with unnecessary tickets and stops as they tried to protest in downtown Omaha.
“They’re trying to silence our First Amendment right, and they’re trying to silence any form of criticism,” Matthews told The Reader then.
It also confirms some activists’ anxieties that they’re being watched. Two protesters arrested in July faced questions not only by OPD, but also by the FBI’s Omaha branch. They were asked questions about their organization that had been organizing bail funds for jailed protesters as well as their political beliefs.
“You don’t want the FBI to be looking at you, even if you’re not doing anything wrong,” Brendan Lehay said in the summer. “And unfortunately we live in a country that has scapegoated people for their political beliefs before.”
Petto said the impetus for the public records requests came from a suspicion that Omaha police were watching protesters after police identified activist Morgann Freeman for organizing bail funds.
The emails also reflect the contentious relationship between protesters and police. Activists have long defended not getting city or police permission for protests like the one that led to 120 arrests in July. They didn’t want permission from the entities they were protesting against. These emails show that members of OPD may have discussed details about event organizers privately and decided what level of surveillance might be necessary.
The emails also connect to a growing sentiment for stronger police oversight. The ACLU of Nebraska recently settled a lawsuit against The City of Omaha and OPD that led to some police reform, specifically in how they use chemical deterrents and address protests and rallies.
And while the city has made its Citizen Complaint Review Board more accessible, the body’s power over police is still limited, a problem it’s struggled with historically, a Reader investigation showed.
Organizer Ja Keen Fox hopes this will lead to more discussion on what direction the city needs to take on police reform. Especially as city elections approach this spring, Fox said it’s a necessary conversation to have.
“I hope this latest information strengthens the public’s resolve to demand city leadership redirect our city’s funds to community organizations that we can trust to use our taxpayer money responsibly and ethically,” Fox said in the press release. “I hope voters keep these actions in mind as they cast their ballots this spring.”
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Full statement from the Omaha Police Department’s Public Information Office:
“The Omaha Police Department attempts to stay informed of events that impact the safety of its citizens. Any event that may have a large number of people attend is information relative to the safety of the city. Open source intelligence was used (i.e Facebook announcements etc) to learn of events that may bring a large number of persons together over the summer during a specific period of civil unrest in our City. The Omaha Police Department was also aware that there were counter protestors meeting who may have tried to disrupt some events, and that was a safety/security concern. The City of Omaha Legal Department was consulted when utilizing the open source documents.
There [sic] no surveillance conducted on individuals; open source documents were referenced to learn where the event was going to be and staffed accordingly to maintain public safety. Many times organizers would not meet with the OPD in order to pre-plan for a safe event, therefore the only way we would have known about a large scale event was from social media. In addition, OPD learned of hundreds of large gatherings that were planned, and the OPD disseminated such information as a situational awareness only, meaning no police response at all.
The Omaha Police Department supports First Amendment and social justice concerns and is desirous of assisting to facilitate a peaceful event and expression of thoughts for all involved.”