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ACLU of Nebraska: Omaha police surveilled Black activists in 2020

Posted at 12:29 PM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 20:28:01-05

UPDATED ON 02/25/2021 2:45 P.M.

On Thursday, the ACLU of Nebraska publicly released emails from Omaha Police Department (OPD) personnel and City of Omaha officials in which they discuss the surveillance of Black activists and allies.

The ACLU said it obtained the emails “via three public records requests throughout 2020, specifically requesting emails naming local activists.”

The civil rights organization said officials provided hundreds of emails and attachments.

“The emails show surveillance activities that appear to be linked to advocates’ beliefs about the need for police reform rather than based upon reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct,” the ACLU said in a press release.

The release continues:

“Among the batch are emails showing police sharing the location of an advocate’s birthday party; a police lieutenant requesting undercover officers participate in a chalking event days after police received city guidance that it was a lawful activity; and an officer discussing Black leaders’ perspectives on police reform ahead of a planned community celebration called BlackOut Fest.

Other emails show police were prepared to repeat militarized tactics they used at some of the largest 2020 protests. In one email, a police captain advises officers they should have a SWAT team prepared if they receive ‘intel’ that BlackOut Fest ‘could go sideways.’ Similarly, a document showing police preparations for a memorial walk honoring Zachary Bear Heels includes an officer assigned to ‘PEPPERBALL & TANK.’

Police also discussed surveillance of the ACLU’s legal clinic for people caught up in the mass arrest at the Farnam march, ultimately deciding to have a car pay ‘special attention’ to the event but not “sit on it.”

ACLU of Nebraska sent a letter to Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer. In it, Legal Director Adam Sipple said the organization has significant concerns about both the sheer extent of surveillance and its purpose. The letter asks for immediate clarity on whether these activities fall in line with current policy and whether they have drawn resources away from investigating genuine public safety matters.

“I am sure you understand there is a disturbing historical pattern of police monitoring lawful activities of Black civil rights leaders,” Sipple said. “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.”

According the ACLU, they have not received a response from the Omaha Police Department.

The 3 News Now Investigators requested an interview with OPD. The department declined, but sent the following statement:

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 was 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.
Omaha Police Department, office of the Public Information Officer

City of Omaha Interim City Attorney Matthew M. Kuhse released a response to the ACLU allegations.Read below or click here to open the press release.