A statue of former Philadelphia mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo sits near the city’s Municipal Services Building. Flickr image courtesy yourfavoritemartian.

Students of Pennsylvania history thought something sounded familiar when they learned Sept. 14 that the state’s Office of Homeland Security was paying a private contractor thousands of dollars to compile “intelligence” on dangerous elements, including environmentalists, gay and lesbian organizations and even a nonprofit tied to the governor that promoted education.

Bulletins filled with descriptions of upcoming festivals, parades and demonstrations were ostensibly designed to keep officials aware of potential terrorist and criminal threats. But Gov. Ed Rendell’s prompt apology once news of the surveillance became public, plus recent admissions by a state police director that the memos were unreliable and read like grocery-store tabloids, turned the contract into a seriously questionable use of taxpayer money at best.

Fifty-six years later, it seemed, authorities in Pennsylvania had learned little from the infamous antics of a controversial police commissioner and eventual mayor who led a campaign of spying, harassment and intelligence collection to rid Philadelphia of its loose morals and the scourge of communism.

Nicknamed “Rizzo the Raider” for his headline-grabbing assaults on gambling parlors and illegal bars, Frank Rizzo set out to sterilize “the city that loves you back,” as Philadelphia is sometimes called. The team of officers Rizzo used to help execute his approach to law enforcement was actually created in 1964 under a liberal former police commissioner named Howard Leary who hoped to pioneer an innovative response to the growing trend at that time of public demonstrations.

Seeking to both maintain order and protect the constitutional rights of protesters, Leary conceived of a specially trained police officer known as – no joke – the “Civil Disobedience Man.” Deceased ACLU lawyer Frank Donner described this notion in a 1990 book on local police intelligence units during the latter half of the 20th century nicknamed “Red Squads” for their obsession with communism. According to Donner:

The CD man was to be selected for his congeniality, ‘long fuse,’ patience, and maturity – young enough to be able to relate to demonstrators but with sufficient experience to stay cool under pressure. Those who qualified were then to be schooled by professionals in sociology, human relations and civil-rights law. … At the conclusion of a demonstration, the entire squad was supposed to meet in a self-criticism session.

Right. While community-oriented policing is common today, the idea of a “Civil Disobedience Man” still seems quaint and it was apparently nauseating to Frank Rizzo then. Rizzo called Leary a “gutless bastard” and turned the Civil Defense Squad into an “instrument of aggression,” Donner writes.

But more than that, the squad became known for its compulsive intelligence gathering. Team members developed information about the personal life and background of student activists, black radicals, noisy alternative newspaper publishers and virtually anyone linked to them who may or may not have shared their positions.

As Donner tells it, Rizzo and an aid boasted to NBC reporters in 1970 that the police department had added some 18,000 names to index cards, together forming what constituted an intelligence database back then. Each card, they proclaimed, featured a name, address, image and small description of the individual. The back listed dates and locations of pickets they’d participated in along with the groups involved. Attitudes that criss-crossed the political spectrum were included, the duo was sure to mention.

On the other hand, Donner was an ACLU lawyer with a viewpoint and he didn’t hide his contempt for Rizzo. Some groups during that period weren’t shy about showcasing their militancy in public by defiantly brandishing firearms, donning fatigues and indulging in revolutionary slogans and rhetoric, as if they really expected an insurrection to break out at any moment. The Boomers had a tendency toward melodrama, after all.

But then, like now, authorities singled out political speech rather than criminal conduct. Observing fundamental legal concepts like reasonable suspicion and probable cause that overlook political expression has the distinct advantage of absolving police when it does become necessary to take action.

Rizzo wasn’t alone and similar scenarios occurred in other cities before eventually Red Squads reached heights the public could no longer tolerate. Many of the units were dismantled, declawed or restricted by new federal rules on data collection and settlement agreements signed after years of legal wrangling over civil-rights abuses.

A former Minneapolis police chief who once served as a young officer in New York City’s notorious Bureau of Special Services, or BOSS, told the Center for Investigative Reporting for a 2009 story, “We headed up infiltrations of perfectly innocent groups and we got beat up over it.” The atmosphere changed in Philadelphia, too, according to Donner:

Following a meeting early in 1980 with police critics, the new city administration under Mayor William Green announced that the police intelligence countersubversive file collection had been destroyed, that the police department would in the future monitor and maintain records on individuals and groups only where there was a ‘potential for violence,’ and that photographs and other records would be destroyed following a demonstration or investigation if no violent or criminal activity took place.

The Sept. 11 hijackings, however, inspired a resurgence of local police intelligence teams, this time targeting terrorists. Proponents of the resurrected trend, termed “intelligence-led policing,” promise things have changed after half-a-century of evolution in law enforcement.

Reams of testimony before Congress by national police leaders and senior homeland security officials follow a certain script in which the sundry intelligence programs and databases created since Sept. 11 are lauded as essential to the war on terror while the speaker is sure to mention that powerful safeguards are in place for protecting privacy and civil liberties. One decades-old interest group that formed during the era of Red Squads and still represents police intelligence units today now points to Donner’s book among others as guidance for what not to do.

Both opponents and defenders of more aggressive intelligence collection warned of fallout from abuses after the attacks when it quickly became clear government would need break down barriers to the exchange of critical information about terrorists. The problem is that new apologies are becoming predictable, and Ed Rendell’s rush to condemn what occurred in Pennsylvania suggests politicians know the public is tiring of endless revelations.

Residents in Maryland found out during 2008 that their own state police conducted a wide-reaching surveillance program aimed at death-penalty opponents, peace activists and mainstream human-rights groups. Officers used fake e-mail addresses to spy online, and they placed one longtime anti-violence organizer in a database used for storing information about drug traffickers where he was labeled under “terrorism – anti-war protesters.”

The state’s governor, Martin O’Malley, called on a former federal prosecutor to investigate, and his later report found that no one in the state police’s chain of command “gave any thought whatever” to the possibility that such snooping was inappropriate.

Denver’s first African-American mayor, Wellington Webb, expressed remorse after documents became public stretching all the way back to 1953 that described police spying on hundreds of individuals and organizations, among them the American Friends Service Committee and Amnesty International. Webb said he was “particularly sensitive” to the issue because he and other civil-rights leaders were ensnared in the FBI’s intelligence-gathering operations of the 1970s.

The list goes on with many of the cases described in a nationwide map the ACLU unveiled this summer. So now the question is this: What will it take after half-a-century to balance the crime-fighting tools police need with the grand American tradition of public protest? Until an answer arrives, we’ll wait to hear another apology.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.