Embracing the Future

Traveling out of DIA continues to be a frisky business.

But it was another page altogether that arrived at my house last week. "Recently, you submitted a request to the Denver Police Department for copies of any intelligence files, which might contain information relative to you," read the letter from Chief of Police Gerald Whitman. "At that time, you were advised that your name did not appear in any of the information. Upon further investigation of additional files, which were located, please be advised that your name does not appear anywhere in those files."

If a spy novel were crafted this clumsily, no one would make it past that first page.

To summarize the plot: Through an odd set of circumstances (okay, a blabby Lakewood police officer), this past spring the American Civil Liberties Union discovered that the DPD had been keeping surveillance files on citizens and activist groups that had been doing nothing more suspicious than exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. The ACLU sued the city to find out what was going on. Mayor Wellington Webb assigned three judges to get to the bottom of the mess, and they determined that when the DPD was setting up a new computer database a few years ago, untrained officers dumped information on hundreds of common citizens in with the rare actual felon. The resulting database contained the names of over 3,000 individuals and several hundred groups, some as suspect as the American Friends Service Committee, a recipient of the Nobel Prize. The judges recommended that most of those files be purged.

But before they were -- and at the request of the ACLU -- individuals and groups would be able to find out if their names appeared in the notorious spy files. And so starting on September 3, they could present themselves at DPD headquarters, fill out the "Request for Intelligence File" and wait while an officer went upstairs, checked the database and then handed back the form with one of two boxes checked: "a copy of the file consisting of ___ pages was given to the requesting party" or "the requesting party was not on the list of files due to be purged from the system, so no information was provided." A check in that second box could mean two things: Either your name had never been in the files and so could not be purged -- or your name had been in the files, and the judges and the cops thought there was good reason to make sure it stayed in the files, and so it would not be purged.

But it turns out there was another possibility: There was stuff about you all over the police department, and the intelligence bureau just hadn't been smart enough to find it.

Two weeks into the process, an officer discovered a cache of intelligence files that had never been catalogued. A tight-jawed Whitman moved six new officers into the bureau to search every nook and cranny for other errant information. And in the meantime, the DPD sent about 800 letters to those who'd already requested their intelligence files.

Lieutenant Judith Will, whose name is listed as a contact on that letter, has been working in intelligence for about six weeks now, reassigned from District 6. "The next round is reaching out to everybody," she says, "even people who haven't requested their files." People who received police honorariums, for example, who somehow wound up with the rest of the folks in the spy files.

At this point, nothing would surprise ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein. "First there was the fiction that everything had been put into the database and all the paper had been purged," he says. "Then on September 16, they announced the discovery of all the file cabinets of the allegedly purged files.

"We're interested in seeing copies of what people receive," he adds. "There's always the possibility that someone will receive the disclosure of documents we haven't seen."

Time to turn the page.

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