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Alarm Sounded Over Omaha Police Surveillance of Black Activists, Allies

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Omaha police emails reveal a police lieutenant requesting undercover officers participate in a demonstration days after police received city guidance that it was a lawful activity. (Snappy Goat)
Omaha police emails reveal a police lieutenant requesting undercover officers participate in a demonstration days after police received city guidance that it was a lawful activity. (Snappy Goat)
 By Eric Galatas, Public News Service - NE - Producer, Contact
March 4, 2021

OMAHA, Neb. -- Omaha Police Department emails obtained through a public records request suggest surveillance activities targeting racial justice advocates were based on their beliefs about the need for police reform, not on reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.

Adam Sipple, legal director for the ACLU of Nebraska, said Americans should not be subjected to police surveillance because of the color of their skin or their political views.

He sees the department's response to calls for police reform as a glaring example of a day in the life for people of color: over-policed, assessed for their potential danger, and always watched closely.

"That's not the way other members of our community are treated," Sipple asserted. "And we see a direct line between their protest activities and the way the officers responded to them."

Sipple's team found police discussing a Black leader's perspectives on police reform, and disclosing the location of an advocate's birthday party.

After city attorneys told police they could not arrest people for writing on a sidewalk with chalk, the department called for undercover officers at the demonstration to gather intelligence.

Omaha city officials said the police department supports First Amendment rights, and claimed officers were monitoring public social-media accounts to determine where large crowds might gather in order to provide traffic control and ensure public safety.

Sipple pointed to squad-car surveillance at a legal clinic hosted by the ACLU in the middle of the day, where last summer's Farnam Street demonstrators came to learn their legal rights in order to respond appropriately and peacefully at future protests.

"That's why you go to a legal clinic," Sipple contended. "But even that was monitored and discussed for the potential of violence, absent any basis for that. That had nothing to do with public safety or traffic enforcement."

Sipple noted the nation has a disturbing historical pattern of police monitoring lawful activities of Black civil-rights leaders.

He added unnecessary, biased surveillance damages public trust and public-safety goals, especially among communities that have suffered the most from police misconduct and over-policing.

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