WASHINGTON — The D.C. police department says it authorized using at least one undercover officer to monitor a protest group’s activities after the assault of a uniformed officer at an earlier demonstration made officials concerned about the “probability of further violence,” according to court documents.
Police officials revealed the use of undercover personnel while responding to a lawsuit that accused the department of infiltrating a group, United Students Against Sweatshops, with a female plainclothes officer last spring.
The organization, in its lawsuit this month, had sought a court order declaring as unlawful the use of undercover officers to monitor the group. It also asked a judge to bar police from spying on them without proper basis.
Lawyers for the department did not deny using undercover officers in their response to the lawsuit, but they rejected claims that the group suffered any harm or that the presence of an undercover officer impeded its free speech rights.
They said the police followed all laws governing investigations of First Amendment activities, which permit the use of undercover officers if reasonable suspicion exists that a person or organization is planning or engaged in crimes. An auditor’s report released last year found the department frequently investigated First Amendment activities without the proper clearance and had failed to adequately train certain specialized officers. Police Chief Cathy Lanier took issue with the report’s findings.
In this case, the decision to send an undercover officer was made last May after the assault of an officer at a Gap store triggered concerns of additional violence, according to a four-page sworn statement from Thomas Wilkins, the executive director of the intelligence division, was submitted alongside the lawsuit response.
He said a uniformed officer was punched and body-slammed by three demonstrators while trying to escort them from a Gap store during a protest May 1. Wilkins said he authorized an investigation into the assault without any undercover officers, then agreed more than a week later send in “undercover personnel” after receiving information that similar demonstrations were being planned.
He said he concluded that the undercover work was “the least intrusive means of conducting the investigation.”
“As a result of the probability of further violence, the memorandum requested the use of undercover officers to monitor the upcoming demonstrations,” Wilkins said. He did not say how many undercover officers were used.
The group describes itself as a grassroots organization that uses “nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience” to fight for better living and working conditions.
The organization said in its lawsuit that the female officer, identified as Nicole Rizzi, attended multiple events in May and June, passing herself off as a fellow demonstrator by handing out flyers, chanting and carrying banners. The group says it was able to identify her as an officer because of comments that she made on social media.
Rizzi has not responded to requests for comments since the suit was filed.
Attorney Jeffrey Light, who represents the organization, said the officers were assaulting the protesters rather than the other way around. He said one of the people arrested, whom he also represented, protected himself against an officer with a martial-arts move and that the charges were dismissed. He said the department’s assertions of an assault still wouldn’t justify the use of an undercover officer.
“I still don’t see how the use of undercovers deters further violence at a protest, assuming everything that they’re saying is completely true,” Light said.