Denver Police Use Social Media to Follow Activists, Bring Back Fears of Spy Files

Tim Gabor
On December 27, Dezy St. Nolde, better known as Queen Phoenix, was in a Starbucks parking lot, meeting with a woman with whom she’d been corresponding about medical marijuana products. The woman went to get something out of her vehicle. “Next thing I know, I see [an] officer with a gun pointed at my stomach,” Phoenix recalls. “At least six squad cars were in the lot and blocking both entrances.”

Phoenix, who’d earlier told the woman she was pregnant, was hauled off to jail. When she was released more than a day later, she learned that she was being charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. Before that meet-up with a would-be client who turned out to be an undercover cop, Phoenix had been producing edibles and other non-smokeable marijuana products, operating under the impression that she could gift up to an ounce of cannabis to customers who wanted it for medical purposes in exchange for a donation. That impression may have been wrong.

But Phoenix is convinced that her arrest had little to do with cannabis; she thinks she was targeted because she’s an activist.

Phoenix has only lived in Denver since August, but as a queer activist, she quickly became a recognizable figure after using Facebook to organize a November 10 post-election protest. “When Trump got elected, I felt devastated,” she explains. To her surprise, the Denver protest became one of the most prominent in the country, drawing up to 5,000 participants and getting coverage from national and international outlets. Phoenix was featured in many of the news photos, her large Afro and megaphone making her look like a 21st-century Angela Davis.

click to enlarge Dezy St. Nolde, aka Queen Phoenix, thinks her post-election protest made her a Denver Police Department target. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Dezy St. Nolde, aka Queen Phoenix, thinks her post-election protest made her a Denver Police Department target.
Anthony Camera
One of the reasons the Denver protest got so much attention was that a handful of protesters shut down a section of Interstate 25. Phoenix insists that she had nothing to do with that action; those demonstrators were a splinter group that walked out onto the freeway after the main rally was over. In any case, Phoenix built on the momentum of her first demonstration, holding other events and planning meetings in the name of her organization, Community for Unity.

Those plans are the reason that she believes the Denver Police Department is interested in her activism. While she was in jail, Phoenix had been presented with a search warrant; she’d given officers her keys so they wouldn’t trash her place. Even so, someone had opened all her Kwanzaa presents, moved her lingerie and sex toys, strewn garbage around and left food outside of the refrigerator to spoil. More alarming was what had happened to the notebooks in which she’d written about her business and protest plans. Phoenix says only one or two pages pertaining to cannabis — a couple of recipes — had been taken. But police had confiscated all of the pages about her activism activities.

Phoenix isn’t the only one concerned that the DPD is gathering intelligence on activists around town — and there’s good reason for that concern. Not only have police officers been paying close attention to social-media posts, but in early 2016 the department purchased subscriptions to a powerful social-media monitoring tool called Geofeedia, which was used by law enforcement agencies across the country to monitor protests and other actions.

While it is important for police to be aware of potential threats around the city, especially regarding large events where people are vulnerable to attacks, DPD policies explicitly prohibit gathering or storing intelligence information on protesters or activists who are solely engaged in First Amendment-protected activities. Before officers can engage in such intelligence-gathering, they must first have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, which the DPD Operations Manual defines as “established when investigation shows that a person has been, is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts and inferences.”

click to enlarge One of the bedrooms in Phoenix's home after the DPD's search. - COURTESY OF DEZY ST. NOLDE
One of the bedrooms in Phoenix's home after the DPD's search.
Courtesy of Dezy St. Nolde
But the department’s use of Geofeedia suggests that the DPD’s Intelligence Unit was tracking people who didn’t have any relationship to criminal investigations. The simple act of posting content about certain topics or on a protest event page could have placed them, however momentarily, under the scrutiny of intelligence analysts who had no reason to suspect them of criminal activity — and who may have violated the DPD’s own policies in the process.

It’s not like the DPD doesn’t know how intelligence gathering can be abused. Fifteen years ago, revelations that the Denver police had been tracking activists for decades rocked the city.

That program became known as the Denver Spy Files.

On September 3, 2002, Glenn Morris was one of hundreds of individuals who’d gathered in front of Denver Police headquarters, waiting to see if the Denver Police Department had been keeping a file on him.

The Spy Files had been discovered by accident. In December 2000, a few Denver activists had entered a Kohl’s superstore in Golden dressed as Santa Claus and spray-painted red paint on jeans produced in Nicaragua as a demonstration against exploiting sweatshop labor. One of the Santas had been caught by police, and a year later was charged in a criminal case by the Jefferson County District Attorney. As part of the discovery phase of the case, defense attorneys had obtained intelligence files that the DPD shared with Jefferson County law enforcement officials during the investigation.

 The very existence of such a file was surprising — and as the ACLU of Colorado looked into the program, it discovered that many activists who’d engaged in peaceful demonstrations had been under DPD surveillance. On March 28, 2002, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the City and County of Denver, challenging the practices that had led to the Spy Files. The plaintiffs included organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, a former winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as a Catholic nun in her seventies who’d been under surveillance while doing charity work.

Six months later, under pressure from lawyers and the public, then-mayor Wellington Webb’s administration made the Spy Files documents on 208 organizations and 3,200 individuals available. Anyone who suspected that they were in the system could submit a notarized request to view their file — if one existed.

Roughly 400 people, including Morris, showed up on the first day that the files could be accessed, to see if the DPD had gathered intel on them. One by one, individuals submitted their requests; meanwhile, upstairs in police headquarters, city attorneys pored over the documents, making redactions with black markers.

Glenn Morris had the biggest Spy File. - JIM J. NARCY
Glenn Morris had the biggest Spy File.
Jim J. Narcy
As a leader of the American Indian Movement of Colorado and an outspoken professor at the University of Colorado Denver, Morris was pretty sure that he’d have a file; he’d noticed undercover cops at AIM meetings. And as it turned out, he had the thickest file of any individual in the Spy Files program, over a hundred pages. As he reviewed the intelligence gathered on him, Morris found that not only had cops come to his meetings, but police officers had sat in patrol cars outside of his home, taking down license-plate numbers of the people who visited him. Officers then ran those numbers and created separate intelligence files for the individuals to whom they belonged.

Morris didn’t even recognize some of the names on the list; people must have been observed when they parked in front of his house to go to nearby homes, shops and restaurants. “I looked at the file and said, ‘I don’t know these people,’” Morris recalls. “So these innocent people got caught in the dragnet, and then they had files based on their perceived association with me by the police, even though there was no association.”

In his file, Morris was listed as a “criminal extremist” — a label the DPD later explained was applied to Morris, and many others, because Orion, the data-entry software, used a dropdown menu, and “criminal extremist” was the only term that officers could find to describe the people in the file.

There were more inaccuracies, too. On one page, Morris was described as a drug runner in a motorcycle gang, a complete fabrication.

But the most unnerving revelation was that the DPD had received a tip from the FBI that Morris and AIM leader Russell Means were potential targets for assassination at an event they were participating in at the Denver Tech Center. “So the FBI had a tip that Russell and I were supposed to be killed at a particular place at a particular time, and they didn’t tell us!” exclaims Morris. “Denver police just stood back to see if it was going to happen.”

(Below is part of Morris' file. Note that it contains inaccuracies. Click 'Expand' for a larger view)

Part of Glenn Morris' file (note: this document contains many inaccuracies and should not be taken as fact)
ACLU of Colorado

Fifteen years later, reflecting on how he felt when he first looked through his file, Morris says: “You can imagine, abstractly, that the government may have a ‘file’ on you, but when you see it in black and white, and you see that they’ve been sitting outside of your house, and you see that they knew you were supposed to be killed and didn’t tell you...that’s disconcerting.”

Barbara Cohen was the first to see her file that day. Like Morris, she and her husband, Mark Cohen, both expected that they’d be in the system. Barbara and Mark had met on a picket line protesting the Vietnam War at the University of Denver in 1969. Over the following decades, they’d been active in all sorts of issues, both international — actions involving Palestine and Central America and the Middle East — and local to Denver, like police brutality. When the Spy Files were released, they were organizing under a group called End the Politics of Cruelty, or EPOC.

One of the first things Barbara Cohen noticed about her file was that “they didn’t do a very good job with redacting, because you could hold it up to the light and read a lot of what they were trying to [black out],” she recalls.

Mark Cohen’s file also contained sloppy redactions, mostly covered-up names of other people and organizations.

And both of their files contained inaccurate information. In Mark’s file, there was a group photo with an arrow pointing to a man labeled “Mark” — but it wasn’t him. Barbara’s file also said that she was in a motorcycle gang, an accusation she found humorous given her petite stature and unfamiliarity with motorcycles.

click to enlarge Mark and Barbara Cohen were each labeled a “criminal extremist” in their Spy Files. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Mark and Barbara Cohen were each labeled a “criminal extremist” in their Spy Files.
Anthony Camera
While the Cohens looked through their files, others were still waiting. By 10 or 11 p.m. on September 3, there were still hundreds of people in line. “That’s when someone decided to order pizzas,” Mark recalls with a chuckle. “There was almost a party atmosphere that night, because a lot of people there were those we’d been working with over the years, and we all expected we’d have a file. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think for most of us, it didn’t bother us because we weren’t going to be intimidated. We’d been doing activism for a long time, and we knew that they were observing us.”

“This was producing a chilling effect and preventing people from exercising their First Amendment rights."

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The Cohens even made satirical bumperstickers that say “Criminal Extremist.” They still have some of them at their home.

“They were never going to scare me off,” says Barbara.

Yet she doesn’t discount the concerns others may have felt upon learning they’d been spied on. “You wonder how many people weren’t going to protests, no matter how they felt, because they didn’t want to have a file and were scared about that,” she says. “This was producing a chilling effect and preventing people from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

In fact, concerns about stifling free speech was one of the central issues in the class action lawsuit.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, was closely involved with that lawsuit, and says there were significant constitutional concerns around the Spy Files. “The First Amendment guarantees our right to criticize the government and peacefully join with others to picket, to petition, to demonstrate. But the right to express unpopular views is a fragile one,” Silverstein explains. “Throughout our history, the right to speak out and the right to engage in organized dissent has frequently been threatened, both subtly and overtly. It was only a few years ago that the FBI targeted Martin Luther King and actively worked to destroy the credibility of civil-rights leaders and activists who worked peacefully and legally for social change. And here in Denver, police monitored expression of unpopular views as though it were potential criminal activity.”

As more people looked through their Spy Files, the extent of the DPD’s surveillance program was exposed. Police had collected license-plate numbers of everyone who’d attended a religious service at a Denver mosque; they’d also infiltrated activist meetings, written a memo about a particular journalist, collected the names of people who signed up to testify at a legislative hearing at the State Capitol, and gone undercover at a meeting between protesters and representatives of the Mexican consulate.

Webb admitted that the DPD’s Intelligence Unit had been operating under an “overly broad” interpretation. He appointed a three-judge panel to make new policy recommendations. But even after the panel finished its work, six more cabinets full of Spy File documents were discovered. Among those documents were additional materials on the American Indian Movement of Colorado.

The AIM file turned out to be 1,500 pages long — the most information compiled on any single organization. It included documents detailing how the Four Winds American Indian Council was raided on a false tip that the building was being used to harbor weapons. “Unlike any other organization, there was some evidence that all you had to be was an Indian to be in the files,” says Morris.

“I don’t think it was just DPD,” he adds. “To put a fine point on it, I think it’s racism. There is a residual racist perspective that Native people are still dangerous — that we’re still unpredictable, and that we need to be watched…. So every time we had a demonstration, they thought we were going to bring guns or do something really militant. And, of course, AIM had a reputation after Wounded Knee and after the Trail of Broken Treaties that we would defend ourselves. And people also found that out more recently at Standing Rock — that even though there wasn’t violence or Native people with guns, we’ll stand our ground. And we’ll do it in ways that maybe others won’t, because this is our homeland.”

Not all of the material in AIM’s file was as sensational as police raids or undercover infiltration. Many pages contained information that was public and easy to obtain, such as news clippings and photographs of public meetings. “For a lot of people, it might seem inconsequential,” Morris says. “But it’s not so much that they take a news article and put it in the file; it’s the inferences that they make. What conclusions are they drawing from those articles that are based on their own biases?”

Eventually, additional discovery requests by the ACLU and others revealed how even public information could become dangerous in the police department’s hands.

click to enlarge Mark Cohen displays bumperstickers that he and his wife made. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Mark Cohen displays bumperstickers that he and his wife made.
Anthony Camera
In one 1998 DPD memo, for instance, intelligence officers were told that while they conducted a “purge” of documents that they were transferring to the new Orion system, they did not have to “destroy” the paper files, but could instead take them home. According to the memo, this was to “maintain integrity of all files and references in the likely event of litigation by political or subversive groups.”

Another revelation was that the Spy Files were being shared with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and two dozen Colorado law enforcement agencies that attended a bi-monthly meeting called MAGIC — the Multi-County Group Intelligence Conference.

Such intelligence sharing highlights why even having a license-plate number mistakenly written down or being erroneously labeled a “criminal extremist” could have devastating consequences.

“We had people on the list who traveled and worked internationally,” says Morris. “And if you have someone going to Mexico or Nicaragua or Ecuador or someplace where ‘criminal extremist’ is not a generic term — where it may mean that you’re a ‘terrorist’ or a threat to the state — then that can get you killed.”

In fact, one of the plaintiffs in the class action suit, Kerry Appel, had been stopped by authorities in Mexico while he was in that country exporting coffee and honey to sell at his co-op on South Broadway: His Spy File documents, which included references to him being a criminal extremist and a member of the Zapatista movement, had been shared by DPD with outside agencies.

The longer the case went on, the worse things appeared for the city. By early 2003, with more damning Spy Files information continuing to come out, the City and County of Denver decided to settle the lawsuit.

“All of this stuff just kept hitting the police department, and I think that’s what pushed them to settle,” remembers Adrienne Benavidez, who is currently the Colorado House Representative for District 32 in Commerce City; an attorney, she was part of the Spy Files settlement negotiation team. “The city knew, because of the questions that the magistrate was asking, that this was not looking good.”

Ultimately, the team representing the plaintiffs was able to not only strengthen existing policy — dictating that the police could not collect or retain information about people or organizations engaged in non-criminal activity — but push through added protections. Benavidez says that one of the biggest wins was getting a surveillance exception for people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience, which is technically a misdemeanor crime.

“Just because someone fails to follow an order at a protest shouldn’t give rise to keeping all of that [surveillance] information,” she explains. “We recognized that flaw, which was that misdemeanors are ‘criminal.’ And anyone can get [misdemeanors] going to a protest, even for refusing to leave when [the police] tell them to.”

The final settlement, which was reached and announced on April 17, 2003, was good for five years; it expired in 2008. The DPD’s current policy maintains much of the settlement’s language, including the basic rule that police cannot spy on, or retain information about, protesters without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. But civil disobedience is no longer protected as an exception.

“My admonition to younger people is, don’t make their job easier for them by providing too much information.”

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Today, a portion of the Spy Files can still be viewed as a reminder of the perils of extralegal surveillance. Webb’s administration had originally intended to destroy the files, but they became a political issue during the 2003 mayoral race, when dark-horse candidate John Hickenlooper promised to keep them. Hickenlooper won the race, and today some of the Spy Files are stored in the Western History Department of the Denver Public Library. Although access to those documents is largely restricted to the people listed in the files, some are available to the general public.

Morris encourages people to go see the files for themselves. And he has other advice, too. “My admonition to younger people is, don’t make their job easier for them by providing too much information,” he says. “This is not to frustrate the ability of the police to do their legitimate police work or to encourage people to engage in criminality. It’s to encourage people to have enough knowledge and the tools necessary to fully participate in a democratic society and to make sure their voices are heard.”

That advice is something that Glenn Morris’s niece, Sky Roosevelt-Morris, takes to heart. As a young leader in the American Indian Movement of Colorado, she grew up with the legacy of the Spy Files. “A few of us were around during the time that these files were being collected,” she recalls. But today, she and her peers have another consideration when it comes to surveillance: social media.

Social-media monitoring recently came into focus at Standing Rock, where surveillance tactics not only included undercover agents from the Dakota Access Pipeline corporations infiltrating the Standing Rock camp and using drones for aerial surveillance, but law enforcement tracking activists and the indigenous community through their social-media posts. At one point, this included police using Facebook’s “check-ins” to track who was at the Standing Rock camp. But in late October, over a million people — most of whom were not actually in North Dakota — supported the movement by doing “check-ins” of their own to confuse law enforcement personnel.

Roosevelt-Morris sees these types of counter-surveillance tactics as effective — but even more effective is staying off social media as much as possible. “In the era of Trump, I don’t think you can be too prepared,” she says. “In the times we’re about to experience, we can never be too cautious about understanding that Big Brother is watching, and that’s not just a slogan. Because we already have such a history and are aware of what happened with the Spy Files and what happened with the American Indian Movement, I think it’s a good time to sharpen the tools in our kit.”

Early last year, the DPD added another tool to its own kit: Geofeedia. The money for the software purchase came from seized assets, itself a controversial practice in which police take possession of unclaimed property, some of it drug money. The department’s $30,000 acquisition of Geofeedia was never announced to the public, and only came to light in September when reporter Dell Cameron wrote about it in the Daily Dot, an online publication.

“Most Americans know, or at least assume, that police are monitoring social media,” Cameron says in an e-mail. “But the perception is of an environment where expectation of privacy doesn’t exist, so it’s not a big deal. Last summer, I came across a batch of police e-mails produced through [the Freedom of Information Act] that challenged this understanding while investigating police use of cell phone tracking technology. Namely, certain software companies had privately boasted to police that they were developing methods for bypassing Facebook privacy controls, and delivering to police data [that] they’d otherwise need a court order to obtain. And multiple companies had advertised their products as a means to monitor civil rights activists engaged in First Amendment activities.”

The DPD was one of the law enforcement agencies that bought the sales pitch, Cameron says.

At the same time that Cameron published his story about the Denver Police Department, the ACLU of Northern California was conducting an exhaustive investigation into the use of Geofeedia and other tools by twenty law enforcement agencies in California. Its findings, released on October 11, revealed that Geofeedia’s marketing material referred to activists as “overt threats.” In other e-mail exchanges, employees of Geofeedia touted successes monitoring the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson and the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore. This raised concerns that law enforcement agencies were using Geofeedia to target communities of color. According to the ACLU of Northern California, police in San Jose used Geofeedia to monitor South Asian, Muslim and Sikh protesters only a few days after acquiring it.

“Social-media surveillance software provides the potential for Spy Files on steroids.”

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Perhaps more alarming was the discovery that social-media companies, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Flickr, had made special arrangements with Geofeedia to provide faster and broader access to their users’ data. Then Geofeedia’s software allowed police officers to search, filter and automatically monitor public social-media posts in real time within set geographic boundaries — a term known as “geofencing.” Because social-media posts are frequently made on mobile devices, law enforcement could pinpoint the geographic locations of where users were uploading content.

In a one-page “public safety features sheet” given to the DPD, Geofeedia proclaimed that its software could be used to automatically scan posts for specific images and text, as well as to track the “sentiments” of posts — suggesting a kind of computer algorithm that was written to determine people’s moods. The software also contained archiving and data-export capabilities, allowing law enforcement to retain information.

After the ACLU of Northern California’s findings were published, the ACLU of Colorado issued its own open-records request to look into the Denver Police Department’s use of Geofeedia.

The resulting records, which the ACLU shared with Westword, do not include any intelligence information obtained through Geofeedia — a request that was denied by the City of Denver. But the response from the city does include a list of thirty individuals within the DPD who were given access to the software, including members of the Intelligence Unit, Major Crimes, the vice squad and various police districts.

A list of the thirty DPD individuals who had access to Geofeedia
courtesy of the ACLU of Colorado

This was part of a deal set forth by Geofeedia employee Jon Newman, who in e-mail exchanges with the head of DPD’s Intelligence Unit, Lieutenant William Mitchell, explained that thirty users was the maximum number allowed access to the software. The Denver Police Department took full advantage of that — while it could.

In mid-October, after the ACLU of Northern California sent letters to various social-media companies working with Geofeedia, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all revoked the company’s special access to their data feeds. Geofeedia took a huge hit; within a month, the company laid off 31 of its 60 employees. Newman, the employee who was assigned to work with the DPD, was among them. (When Westword reached Newman by phone, he expressed a desire to talk but said he had made an agreement not to share details about his former employer.)

By all accounts, losing special access to the major social-media networks rendered Geofeedia essentially useless as a surveillance tool.

In e-mails obtained by Westword, members of DPD’s Intelligence Unit discussed canceling the department’s Geofeedia subscription. On October 27, Mitchell sent an e-mail to many members of the police department who had been Geofeedia users:

“As many of you may have heard, there was an open records request from the ACLU and an independent news organization regarding the police department’s use of Geofeedia,” he wrote. “There was a similar request which was in Northern California. As a result of the attention to this program, Twitter and Instagram withdrew their access to Geofeedia. The Denver Police Department is going to no longer use the program and are notifying Geofeedia about ending the contract.”

The DPD wasn’t the only city agency affected. Denver International Airport had pursued its own Geofeedia subscription. In an October 12 e-mail, Mitchell told Lieutenant James Henning: “DIA operations...called me a couple of months ago and asked me about the program. I had told them we hadn’t gotten anything yet, but definitely used it for monitoring events for threats, etc. He knew that our Geofeedia access could include DIA, but they wanted it. They have money to burn out there.”

CORA Response / Department of Public Safety

After Mitchell decided to drop the DPD’s subscription, the Denver City Attorney’s Office sent a letter to Geofeedia demanding a refund of $17,500 of the $30,000 the city had spent on the software. As of late December, Geofeedia had not replied to the city. (Neither Geofeedia nor the Denver City Attorney’s Office responded to Westword’s requests for comment. Multiple requests to the mayor’s office also went unanswered.)

CORA Response / Department of Public Safety

Just as city officials and the DPD had never announced the purchase of the Geofeedia subscription, no public statements were made regarding its termination.

Malkia Cyril, founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, which signed the letter that the ACLU of Northern California sent to Twitter asking the company to revoke data access to Geofeedia, is not resting easy after Twitter canceled its deal with Geofeedia. “To those who say, ‘Anyone can monitor these posts,’ well, my body in the street is also public. Do the police have the right to follow me if I haven’t committed any crime? Do they have the right to spy on me in public places, to trail me if I’m at the grocery store?” she asks.

“The simple fact of information being available to the public is not the only criteria which law enforcement has to pass for whether or not they can spy on you. This is a clear violation of constitutional protections — not only of the First Amendment, but the Fourth Amendment.” The First covers free speech, the Fourth protection against unlawful searches and seizures.

A leader in the Black Lives Matter network, Cyril is also concerned that Geofeedia was used to target communities of color, as law enforcement agencies monitored certain geographical areas during the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore. If such communities continue to face surveillance, she says, more people will fall silent rather than risk their words being monitored.

“They won’t say anything at all,” says Cyril. “And in a democracy, that’s the most dangerous thing of all — that people stop participating.”

Mark Silverstein at the ACLU of Colorado sees plenty of parallels between the Spy Files and DPD’s use of Geofeedia; the argument that Geofeedia isn’t dangerous because it is accessing public social-media information is much the same argument that Denver officials originally used to defend the Spy Files, he says.

click to enlarge The ACLU’s Mark Silverstein. - ANTHONY CAMERA
The ACLU’s Mark Silverstein.
Anthony Camera
“Almost all the information in the Denver police Spy Files was information the police acquired legally, most of it from public sources,” notes Silverstein. “Officers of the Intelligence Unit clipped news stories and letters to the editor. They attended rallies and took notes and photographs. They wrote down license-plate numbers. They downloaded documents from websites. They went to meetings that were open to the public.

“Social-medial surveillance software provides the potential for Spy Files on steroids. It allows police to aggregate content from multiple sources almost instantly, and in a manner that can track our movements, our associations, our networks. With this technology, a few intelligence operatives can quickly collect, monitor and analyze multiple public postings to assemble digital dossiers that are more thorough, more revealing, and cover a broader range of individuals and groups than any system based on paper files.”

For the DPD’s part, Lieutenant Mitchell of the Intelligence Unit says the purpose of using Geofeedia was to identify potential threats of violence and criminal activity; he cites the shootings in Orlando, San Bernardino and Fort Lauderdale as the types of events that the police department hoped to prevent with the software. “That’s what we’re looking for: people who are planning threats of mass violence,” says Mitchell.

The DPD also wanted to use Geofeedia to “look for people out in the community who publicly boast on Facebook and Twitter about their criminal activities,” Mitchell adds. And during its short life span, the program was used to monitor some large events, like the Taste of Colorado over Labor Day weekend.

“There were keyword searches you could do with things like, ‘I’m going to kill you’ or ‘bomb,’ so that if it recognized those types of things, it would alert you,” he explains. “Luckily, we didn’t have anything like that.”

Mitchell stresses that the DPD did not retain any information acquired through the software, and that Geofeedia was never even used to aid a criminal investigation. “And since I’ve been here for two years,” he adds, “we haven’t had any criminal investigations into any protest group.”

While Geofeedia had not successfully identified any potential threats or crimes by the time the city’s subscription was canceled, Mitchell says he doesn’t think the program was given a fair chance before Twitter and Instagram pulled their data feeds.

But the DPD can still use social-media networks to obtain information about protesters and activists — and it has.

On November 15, the day that a renewed crackdown on homeless encampments began near the Denver Rescue Mission, DPD Intelligence Analyst Sergeant Antony Parisi sent an e-mail to Deputy Chief David Quinones:

“Checking open source, we have not seen any planned opposition to the homeless sweeps today. However, the below link is from a local news report that shows the general temperament of some of the homeless. We will continue to monitor.”

In response, another DPD Intelligence Analyst, Samantha Diemer, included a screen shot from Twitter.

“It does look like a few of them plan to march to the capitol. I will let Jay know as well,” she wrote, and followed up by including an additional screen shot from the Facebook page of Denver Homeless Out Loud.

CORA Response/Denver Department of Public Safety
CORA Response/Denver Department of Public Safety
CORA Response/Denver Department of Public Safety
Westword obtained these e-mails through an open-records request asking for documents pertaining to the homeless sweeps. But a follow-up request asking for similar e-mails sent by members of the Intelligence Unit — messages containing social-media screen shots or monitoring of protest activity — was denied. “We believe that the Department’s interest in maintaining the confidentiality of intelligence information coupled with the public interest in maintaining public safety at possible protest events outweigh any public purpose to be served by release of the information,” the city said in denying the request.

But DPD lieutenant Mitchell does have an explanation for those screen shots: “What that was was...occasionally we come across something that you may want the district commander to know about — that they may have a march or rally that could have an impact on their district...So what we would do, if we came across that information, is that we would make that information available to command staff so that they can be aware. None of that information is ever retained or held onto.”

"I know everyone thinks back to the Spy Files days. But the Intelligence Unit's primary focus is to prevent crime and threats of violence. ”

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Mitchell also maintains that most information his unit comes across is not shared with outside agencies. “If an agency was going to be impacted by an event that we noticed and could draw large numbers of people, then we would let that agency know it. Otherwise, no, we do not share that kind of information,” he says.

“I know everyone thinks back to the Spy Files days,” Mitchell adds. “But the Intelligence Unit’s primary focus is to prevent crime and threats of violence. That is what we spend the overwhelming amount of time doing.”

Queen Phoenix is spending most of her time trying to get her life back on track. On a recent Friday, she held an event at the Illegal Pete’s on South Broadway to help with her legal defense. Even though the undercover cop used social media to gather information on her, Phoenix has not given up on social media: She used Facebook to spread word about the fundraiser.

Phoenix’s legal situation is tenuous. Although she says she thought she could give up to an ounce of cannabis to clients in exchange for a donation, the DPD considers such a transaction illegal. Lawyers will hash out the distinctions between “gifting” and “donating” in court; Phoenix’s first appearance is set for January 27.

No matter how the court interprets cannabis law, Phoenix still believes that her arrest was motivated by her politics. And she’s more focused than ever on holding the DPD accountable.

Since she got out of jail right before New Year’s Eve, she and others have found more evidence that police were investigating her activism. When she called out the undercover Denver cop on Facebook, a friend posted a photo of the officer. People responded by saying they’d seen the same individual at other rallies and events — and not just Phoenix’s events, but at events organized by SURJ, another group in Denver dedicated to organizing around racial justice. The woman reportedly had also asked other activists if they could stay in touch by becoming Facebook friends.

click to enlarge Dezy St. Nolde, aka Queen Phoenix, thinks her post-election protest made her a Denver Police Department target. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Dezy St. Nolde, aka Queen Phoenix, thinks her post-election protest made her a Denver Police Department target.
Anthony Camera
Phoenix has kept all of the texts from the undercover cop, which include praise of her activism and the woman’s wish to become more involved herself. These will likely come up in Phoenix’s defense.

On January 7, Phoenix wrote a note on Facebook thanking those who came to her fundraiser:

“Looking forward, I feel a new determination to fight this case and expose the Denver Police Department for their wrongful and aggressive surveillance of activists. I promise to stay strong against this psychological warfare and stay committed to this movement just as I have in the past two months.”

She’s already planning more events — but she’s planning them more carefully. “I knew when I started this that I was taking risks and that I was going to be watched,” Phoenix says. “But [I was more concerned] about angry Trump supporters. I wasn’t really thinking that the cops would come after me, because I didn’t think we were that political. Now I see they’re targeting protesters.”

She’s not the only one who’s wary. “Defending our right to dissent requires vigilance,” the ACLU’s Silverstein says. “It also requires remembering our history, or else we risk allowing law enforcement to repeat it.”