The police spy case in 12 little words

The Baltimore Sun

A word of advice to the Maryland State Police: When discussing the surveillance of anti-war and anti-death penalty groups in 2005 and 2006, use the quote below.

"It happened. It was wrong. We apologize. It will never happen again."

Four simple sentences. A total of 12 words. Those 12 words should suffice. Because if I hear any more lame explanations from state police or former Gov. Robert Ehrlich about why state police did what they did, I'll end up even battier than what I am now.

Last Friday, MSP Superintendent Col. Terrence B. Sheridan held a news conference in which he decried the surveillance before rationalizing it.

According to an article last Saturday by Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz, Sheridan said that police officials launched the operation out of concern about the possibility of violent protests around two planned executions in 2005.

It was at that point - in fact, well past the point - where Sheridan should have simply said: "It happened. It was wrong. We apologize. It will never happen again."

Violent protests around two planned executions? Look, no one is more pro-death penalty than I am. But somehow the image of rampaging anti-death penalty activists is hard for even me to conjure up.

Using the logic of justifying police surveillance because of possible violence, I guess someone, somewhere in MSP headquarters will now tell us they were conducting surveillance on anti-abortion groups who protested or held vigils in front of abortion clinics, right?

Of course we know that most - the overwhelming majority, in fact - of anti-abortion protesters are peaceful people, every bit as peaceful as the anti-war and anti-death penalty activists some in this state felt were such a threat. But not all anti-abortion protesters are peaceful. Some have bombed clinics and murdered, or attempted to murder, doctors who perform abortions. Surely there is far more justification for state police conducting surveillance of anti-abortion protesters than of anti-war and anti-death penalty groups, right?

The anti-abortion protesters who gather regularly - and peacefully, I might add - outside the Suburbia Building in the 5600 block of Baltimore National Pike must have been subjected to such surveillance, right? I first saw them about a year ago, when I took my granddaughter Kaila to modeling classes at the Flair Dance and Modeling Studio, one of several businesses in the Suburbia Building.

"Granddad, what are those people doing?" Kaila asked me.

"Protesting against abortion," I blurted out, forgetting that answering a Kaila question usually inspires yet another Kaila question.

"What's abortion?" she asked at just about the very second I muttered "Uh oh" after my previous answer.

"Ask your mother," I replied, only too happy to pass this incendiary buck to my daughter.

Anti-abortion protesters, the women who run Flair Studio told me, have to keep a certain distance from the building. The owners of Suburbia want it that way, as a precaution. So if these civilians use such precautions, surely state police charged with protecting us from other protesters - the ones who might turn violent, the nut jobs who want to bomb abortion clinics and murder doctors who perform abortions - use the precaution of conducting surveillance at anti-abortion demonstrations to ferret out potential lunatics.

Hey, there must be files upon files in MSP headquarters about the surveillance conducted of anti-abortion demonstrators protesting in front of abortion clinics. Isn't there? I put the question to state police.

Greg Shipley, an MSP spokesman, sent me an e-mail that read, "Due to the ongoing lawsuit and related issues, it would be inappropriate for me to respond to your question today, as much as I would like to."

But Shipley also e-mailed me the "security action plan" state police used that sheds some light on why the surveillance of anti-death penalty activists took place. One of the reasons was, in the words of the plan, to "provide necessary assistance, consistent with the nature of the incident, to deal quickly and decisively with acts of civil disobedience and/or disorderly or illegal conduct."

I understand that reason, but state police should never conflate the words "understand" and "agree." I understand the reason; I don't agree with it. There is no record of civil disorders associated with anti-death penalty demonstrations. Police have long known how "to deal quickly and decisively with acts of civil disobedience."

It's called "arresting those who commit acts of civil disobedience." Besides, civil disobedience is a cherished American tradition, dating back to at least Henry David Thoreau.

But apparently not all Americans feel that way.


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