In July 2020, amid a summer of protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the Chicago Police Department spied on demonstrators who were exercising their constitutional right to free speech. The investigation was approved by Melissa Stratton, CPD’s then-senior advisor of external relations, records obtained by the Weekly show.
Police were a near-constant presence at demonstrations last year, and sometimes openly recorded protesters with video cameras. Such surveillance, if it is not prompted by First Amendment-protected speech, is considered typical law enforcement that does not require special approval.
Spying on demonstrators is different. When police open what a departmental directive refers to as “permissible First Amendment information gathering investigations” of public demonstrations, they must get high-ranking commanders’ approval and the CPD General Counsel’s authorization, which is documented in what the department calls “First Amendment Worksheets.”
These investigations may involve undercover cops, infiltrators, informants, surreptitious video or audio recording, and Stingray cell phone surveillance. While such investigations are rare, the department has spied on protesters before. According to a 2015 analysis by the Reader, CPD opened a half-dozen First Amendment investigations of activists between 2009 and 2015 around actions such as Occupy Chicago and anti-NATO organizing.
The Weekly submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the police department for all First Amendment Worksheets filed in 2020. The department provided a single worksheet, which authorized an investigation of a public gathering held on July 25. The CPD General Counsel reviewed the worksheet and apparently signed off on it. While the General Counsel’s signature is redacted—as is the box they would have checked to indicate their approval—Dana O’Malley has had that role since May 2019.
According to the department’s directive, a commanding officer who approves a First Amendment investigation is responsible for filling out the worksheet. In the July 25 investigation, Melissa Stratton is listed as the commanding officer. At the time Stratton was the department’s senior advisor for external relations, a role that oversaw legislative and news affairs. Stratton did not respond to requests for comment. A CPD spokesperson said everything done was pursuant to CPD First Amendment orders.
In the First Amendment Worksheets the Reader published in 2015, the commanding officers who approved them were never involved with the department’s external relations or news affairs.
“The opening of a First Amendment investigation on the authority of someone employed in a communications function is troubling,” said Nusrat Choudhury, the legal director at the ACLU of Illinois. “It is entirely unclear how the experience of dealing with the news media qualifies someone to make a judgment about whether there is reasonable suspicion—not to mention probable cause—of criminal activity.”
Whatever evidence prompted Stratton to approve the investigation and file the First Amendment Worksheet is unknown, because the section describing the source of information justifying the investigation was redacted. The section titled “Persons or Groups to Be Investigated” was left blank. The worksheet says police were “only documenting” constitutionally protected activity, and that they didn’t require electronic surveillance or undercover methods in their investigation.
That July saw more than a dozen protests and demonstrations, according to The Triibe’s Black Summer 2020 Timeline. On July 17—one week before Stratton submitted the worksheet—protesters confronted police who were guarding a statue of Christopher Columbus in Grant Park; the police retreated before regrouping and attacking protesters indiscriminately.
The department went into reactive mode after the seventeenth, adopting an even more aggressive posture at subsequent protests and keeping close tabs on demonstrations.
On July 24, a few hours before she approved the request, Stratton was one of several recipients of an email from a mayoral aide that included a screenshot from Twitter of a flyer about the Columbus Statue. The message was one of the thousands of hacked emails from mayoral staffers that Lucy Parsons Labs published online in April.
“IT’S GOING DOWN!” the flyer declares, announcing a rally in Grant Park the evening of the twenty-fourth. “We demand the PERMANENT removal of the Columbus Statue.”
There may be no connection. But a flyer—or “literature,” in the language of CPD directives—such as the one sent to Stratton would be the kind of evidence that would require a First Amendment Worksheet in order to open an investigation, according to a departmental directive.
Several demonstrations took place in Chicago on July 25, the date of the investigation listed on the worksheet. Good Kids MadCity held a Love March against gun violence on the West Side. In the Loop, anti-Trump protesters marched from the Federal Plaza to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office. That afternoon, Black Lives Matter demonstrators and a pro-police “Back the Blue” rally both gathered in Grant Park near the site of the previous week’s confrontation—now without the statue, which Lightfoot had ordered removed the night before.
The July 25 Black Lives Matter demonstration in Grant Park could have been the public gathering that Stratton approved covert surveillance of. We don’t know for certain which demonstration the police spied on because the worksheet is redacted. The question of why the department’s senior external relations advisor was involved in approving such an investigation remains unanswered.
“The City fought against continuing a long-time consent decree that curtailed this unlawful spying, claiming that the City would never again engage in such behavior,” Choudhury said. “The people of Chicago deserve more than a redacted worksheet to ensure that current police investigations into protests are not just an effort to continue such unlawful and abusive spying.”
Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor. He last reported on emails that revealed Mayor Lightfoot’s backroom efforts to maintain qualified immunity.