Philadelphia police requested that federal drug agents "infiltrate" demonstrations against social injustice, such as the protests over the killing of George Floyd, last spring, according to email obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
CREW, through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that undercover DEA agents were asked to "infiltrate" protests and provide social media monitoring and aerial surveillance, which was authorized in May 2020 in a DEA memorandum that BuzzFeed News reported on last year. The emails obtained by CREW "provide a glimpse into how the DEA utilized its expanded surveillance authority in three cities," according to the organization.
In June, the Philadelphia Police Department asked DEA agent Jonathan Wilson, the local Special Agent in Charge, to have agents "infiltrate crowds" during protests "for intel purposes." The request was approved by Principal Deputy DEA Administrator Preston Grubbs, who is the second-highest ranking official in the agency.
In an email to Grubbs on June 2, Wilson wrote that "the DEA Philadelphia Field Division has been requested to assist the Philadelphia PD in conducting covert surveillance from within protests in the city of Philadelphia. The purpose of the request is to identify protest leaders, agitators, and individuals who are inciting violence or destruction of property."
A June 3 email shows a Philadelphia police sergeant giving DEA agents "operational information" for a protest later that day, noting that they can use a "communications app" for their "surveillance operation," and that it’s an application that the DEA "doesn’t normally use."
Another email told DEA agents to "dress in a fashion that will allow you to blend [sic] in with the crowds. Masks and bag packs are a good idea."
A mayoral directive in 1987, which was issued as part of a settlement in a lawsuit, states that Philadelphia police must show details relating to the threat of criminal activity in writing and must get permission from the police commissioner and the city managing director before conducting covert surveillance on protests.
A spokesperson for the city said that the Philadelphia police "did not partner with other agencies to physically infiltrate protests," and claimed that the DEA was only providing "general assistance" which was "unfortunately couched as ‘infiltration’ by the requesting officer."
Civil rights attorney David Kairys, who also filed the 1987 lawsuit, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the Philadelphia Police Department is "still a party," to the surveillance and should have gotten written approval first.
"You’re enlisting another law enforcement agency, and you’re asking them to do it for the city," he said. "All it does is join them with another agency, which together with them will do the same thing that the settlement prohibits."
A spokesperson for the police department said that the DEA request "did not rise to the level of an ‘operation’ that required approval" from the commissioner.
The emails obtained by CREW show that the Albuquerque Police Department in New Mexico made similar requests last May, asking for DEA agents to help with "undercover operations as needed" for "scheduled protest related events for the next few days." A subsequent email from DEA Special Agent in Charge on the El Paso Division Kyle Williamson notes that "Seven SAs from the Albuquerque DO will provide surveillance support. Large protests are expected on all downtown Albuquerque courthouses (including Fed) by Black Lives Matter, Free Them All, and Fight For Your Right."
This request and another for "surveillance support" on June 11 were both approved by Grubbs.
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