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Smart Bombs

There's nothing intelligent about the way the DPD kept its spy files.

On September 3, you can learn whether you're on the city's most exclusive list: a roster of people and organizations in the Denver Police Department's intelligence files.

Some of those on Denver's second most exclusive list -- the cast of characters considering a run for Denver mayor in 2003 -- are wondering if there will be an overlap.

"In fact, I'm going to be disappointed if I'm not in there," says Phil Perington, former head of the Denver Democratic Party and a declared candidate. "I'm going to be very disappointed personally in Wellington Webb." Given his association with prominent community activists, including LeRoy Lemos (an odds-on favorite for the DPD hit list), Perington sets his own odds at two to one.

For so-called intelligence records, the DPD's surveillance files are criminally stupid.

That we even learned they existed was coincidental: Last March, in the course of discussing a Jefferson County case, a Lakewood police officer revealed that his wasn't the only county keeping tabs on citizens exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech: Denver had spy files, too. The American Civil Liberties Union quickly requested as much information as the city was willing to provide, which wasn't much. The DPD had what were "clearly political surveillance files," says ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein, even though "they have no documents that define what is a member of a 'criminal extremist group.'" In fact, such dangerous organizations as the American Friends Service Committee -- a Nobel Prize winner for its work pushing peace -- rated a "criminal extremist" label in the DPD's spy-files database, as did thousands of other groups and individuals.

"Two days after we disclosed the existence of these documents, the mayor had a news conference that said the ACLU had some concerns," Silverstein remembers. But regular citizens did, too, and so Mayor Webb tossed the files into the laps of three former judges -- Roger Cisneros, Jean Dubofsky and William Meyer -- and charged the panel with reviewing DPD policies for future information collection (read: spying), as well as determining what to do with the existing files.

The trio found that the DPD spy files contained references to over 200 groups, and determined that while "common sense tells us that some of the 208 groups listed have a criminal purpose, the information that we reviewed did not adequately justify the retention of the information about any of the groups in the department's intelligence files." As for the 3,277 individuals named in the files, "some of the information reflected an arrest record" -- information duplicated in other DPD databases -- "but not a reasonable suspicion that the individual currently was engaging in criminal conduct." The panel recommended cleaning out the entire database, then re-entering information on individuals and groups for which there was a "reasonable suspicion of current criminal activity."

Since 1954, the panel reported, the DPD's criminal-intelligence bureau had maintained a Rolodex with contacts for both criminal-intelligence and public security work. In the late '90s, the department bought a sophisticated criminal-intelligence software system (thanks, Orion), and after purging about 90 percent of the files (estimated at almost 100,000 names), proceeded to transfer information from the Rolodex into that computer database. But because the department "did not purchase training or assistance in the use of the system because the department's appropriation had been halved" -- and this was in that golden era when the city's coffers were full -- "the detectives who transferred the information from the Rolodex to the computer system, which had a powerful cross-indexing capacity, did not know how to utilize the system's capacity, let alone create subfiles," the panel noted. "Our review of all of the files on the system reveals that the stored information includes the names of persons with concealed-weapons permits, persons who have received honorariums from the police department, Project Exile individuals who have convictions involving use of a weapon, persons who are the subject of reports from schools in Denver, persons who have threatened a visiting dignitary or who are classified as 'mental cases,' as well as groups engaged in protest activities."

In other words, this mixed bag combines good Samaritans honored by the DPD with garden-variety demonstrators, assorted nut cases and legitimate targets of police surveillance.

Ari Zavaras -- a former Denver police chief and Denver's manager of safety when the existence of the intelligence files was revealed (he stepped aside in June to concentrate on his run for mayor) -- is the only candidate in a position to know if his name is in that mess. "I think it's highly unlikely," he concedes. As for the faulty computer list, which was compiled when he was working with the Colorado Department of Public Safety, Zavaras says, "I don't think the department got the training that was needed. As a result, you got a real mixing of files into one file, which creates the problem. They literally mixed everything."

The panel recommended that the files be purged -- after people had a chance to call the DPD to find out if their names were on the list. When the ACLU and other activists raised complaints about that proposal, Webb earlier this month announced a formal spy-file procedure: An individual or a group's designated representative must show up at the DPD's downtown headquarters, present ID and fill out a request to see the information. If a record exists that's due to be purged, a copy will be provided "at no charge." But this service will be provided only through November 1, when the files will be removed from the database.

Silverstein thinks the city should make an effort to reach everyone on the list. But in the meantime, he's working within the system. Specifically, he's suggesting that a who's who of citizen activists gather at DPD headquarters at 5:30 p.m. September 3, the first day the records will be available.

He could have plenty of company -- including some mayoral candidates.

"I want to see just how accurate they are," says Perington.

"I don't know if I'm on the list, but I'm going to ask," says Penfield Tate, a northeast Denver legislator who's announced his candidacy. "This whole controversy started in part because groups who thought they should not be subject to observation were. As a legislator and a community activist, I've been present and participated in a number of rallies. I'm concerned that someone may be retaining information on folks who are just exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of expression."

"I certainly wouldn't be surprised if I was in the spy files," says John Hickenlooper, the brewpub baron who's been flirting with the idea of running. "I'm probably even odds, I think, with involvement in community stuff.'

Elizabeth Schlosser, a former art gallery owner who's announced her run, doubts she's in the files, and also doubts that she'd pursue them. Ditto for Sue Casey, the ethics-stressing former member of the Denver City Council who's exploring a potential candidacy. (The most damning thing in Casey's file might be her inadvertent inspiration of the term "soccer mom.")

Asked if he's going to check his spy-file status, City Auditor Don Mares, a long-distance runner in the mayor's race, replies: "Your question makes me curious. Perhaps I will go check, given what we've heard about what kind of people could be in these files. I've attended my share of ACLU functions, marched with workers. I might have to go see, since it's our affirmative opportunity."

Steve Kaplan, city attorney under Mayor Federico Peña, understands the legal ramifications of such files. As someone contemplating a run for mayor ("I'm talking to folks and seriously thinking about it"), he also understands the political ramifications. "It's a fairly cumbersome process," he says of the system set up to determine if you're in the spy files. "It's not as accessible as it appeared."

As it stands, we'll never know who's in the files -- unless those lucky folks tell us. "I think that there has to be a way to have public disclosure of as much of the files as possible without infringing on personal privacy," says Silverstein. "There's a real issue of public accountability here."

And some of that public may never be counted. Subjects of intelligence files that the panel deemed justified will never know that they were on the list -- a list compiled by untrained officers working without legal guidelines -- or that they remain on it. When these people show up at police headquarters and ask whether they have files, they'll simply be told that no information is available.

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