City's Push For Peace At Gop Meeting Raises Rights Debate Police Won Wide Praise For Quelling Protests During Last Summer's Convention. But Nearly All Criminal Cases Have Been Rejected. Critics Say The City Traded Civil Liberties For Peace.

Posted: January 14, 2001

After police made nearly 400 arrests during the Republican National Convention over the summer, police commanders and city officials congratulated themselves on a job well done.

"We can sustain the charges, and we think we can prove it in court," Police Commissioner John F. Timoney said in the days after the arrests.

The court verdicts are now largely in, and the charges have not been sustained.

Of about 300 cases that have been resolved, prosecutors have won just 12 convictions - all misdemeanors. The reversals in court have added credibility to complaints that the rights of protesters were swept aside in the city's zeal to keep the streets open and peaceful at every corner.

The District Attorney's Office quietly dropped scores of cases. Judges, growing impatient at times, have acquitted defendants in dozens more. "You're going to have to have somebody come in here and testify that somebody did something wrong," Municipal Court Judge James M. DeLeon told prosecutors shortly before dismissing 38 cases in one shot.

The unsuccessful prosecutions have accumulated too late to negate the early seal of approval that the city achieved as convention host from July 31 to Aug. 3. The convention was a huge success for the city. Convention-goers moved about without disruption. Police kept order and guarded property without resorting to tear gas.

A more distant perspective reveals the steep price at which this success was delivered: widespread violation of civil liberties.

"What you saw here was a concerted activity by government to punish people prematurely and to keep people off the street," said David Rudovsky, a defense lawyer and civil-liberties expert.

For some, it was just good police tactics. In the days before the convention, a collective anxiety had filtered through the city, whose leaders anticipated showing off to the world a new, improved Philadelphia.

Jangling their nerves further was the specter of Seattle, where less than a year before, television broadcast to the world images of police battling in the streets with demonstrators, windows being smashed, and stores being looted as the World Trade Organization meeting turned into a shambles.

Could that happen in Philadelphia?

Activist organizations put Philadelphia on their agenda. Slogans were devised and the call went out over the Internet: "See you in Philadelphia!"

No one knew exactly what that might mean. But the police commissioner established a simple goal: "Let me give you the goal, the overall goal, the one goal that I wanted, the paramount goal for the the Philadelphia Police Department: Not to be seen on the six o'clock news beating the living daylights out of protesters. That was the number-one goal," Timoney said in a recent interview.

But there seem to have been other goals as well. Protesters were taken out of the game, their leaders were arrested, and their propaganda destroyed.

With their tactics scrambled, the protesters drew little national attention. The city was a hit with convention-goers. And Timoney was lauded: One article called him "America's No. 1 cop."

But in the city where the Bill of Rights was drafted some believe the tenets of that document were compromised.

"I think the administration made a calculation that Philadelphia is going to make X number of dollars, and we're going to keep it orderly, and if we violate some rights and have to pay some money out later, it will still be worth it," said Larry Frankel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Said Rudovsky: "They decided to use prolonged detention, high bail and overcharging as a means of punishing and preventing dissent. Given that, you can't give them too much credit for not using rubber bullets or tear gas. You have to look at the whole picture."

* After being in custody for several days - until the convention had ended and the national and international media had left - the protesters were released and assigned court dates.

The 140 cases that have gone to trial so far have resulted in just 12 convictions, including that of Terrence McGuckin, 19, a protest leader who was held on misdemeanor charges and whose bail was set at $500,000 bail. He was sentenced to three months' probation.

Many cases folded because police could not identify those arrested and link them to a crime. In addition, 120 people accepted an offer from the district attorney for short probation and a clean record at the end. And 40 people were charged with summary offenses - akin to traffic tickets - that were resolved with fines.

Of 40 felony cases, 17 remain, and there have been no convictions.

Timoney expressed frustration that so many cases had fallen apart.

"Why the difficulty of matching up prisoners with cops is beyond me," he said. "I don't have time to go over there and figure out every single case of everybody here. I assume certain things happen or should be happening. Clearly, they are not."

The collapse of the case against John Sellers, head of the Ruckus Society, proved especially embarrassing.

Sellers, 34, of California, was plucked off city streets on Aug. 2, a day after intense street blockades. Police had tailed him as part of a far-reaching intelligence operation that included compiling dossiers, jotting down license-plate numbers, and snapping surveillance photos, court testimony and documents revealed.

After Sellers' arrest, prosecutors maintained that he had sown "violence and mayhem," and they persuaded a bail commissioner to set bail at $1 million - an unprecedented amount for misdemeanor charges. He stayed in jail for six days, until his bail was lowered to $100,000.

On the day of his trial in November, prosecutors withdrew the case, saying there was no evidence against him.

Timoney denies that police rounded up people without cause.

"I don't see how that's possible," he said. "I'm not saying it couldn't have happened. I can speak for the locations where I was at, where we made the arrests."

District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham turned down requests for interviews but said through her spokeswoman: "There was no advance plan to get tough. The plan was to charge people with the appropriate crimes. And that is what we do."

* The stakes were high. Police set out to decipher the new anti-globalism movement, viewed as a threat to a reconstituted Philadelphia making its international debut.

Philadelphia police forged links with the Secret Service, the FBI, the state police, and other law enforcement agencies across the nation.

In May, the FBI convened a meeting in Philadelphia for local and state police to coordinate plans. A central communications center was set up at an Army facility in South Philadelphia.

As the summer wore on, city undercover officers began photographing activists in Philadelphia as they prepared for the convention. Police initially denied taking the pictures, only to confirm having done so later.

Other intelligence was gathered. An investigative file was kept on Kate Sorensen, a longtime AIDS activist from West Philadelphia. Authorities gathered Sorensen's water and real estate records, bought private data to track her whereabouts as she moved across the country, and examined the voter registrations of her friends, according to documents given to her lawyers.

Sorensen, 38, was held in jail for 10 days, also on $1 million bail. She is awaiting a March trial date on felony charges of riot and risking a catastrophe. She has been arrested 10 times during 20 years of civil disobedience, but never charged with a felony or crime of violence.

* Timoney says he did not know that one tactic of the state police was to infiltrate the activists.

About a week before the convention, four men with short hair and goatees showed up at an old brick warehouse in West Philadelphia that became known as "the puppet warehouse." They said they were union stagehands from Wilkes-Barre, handy with carpentry.

In fact, they were state troopers, but the demonstrators believed their story.

The infiltration took place while city police were restricted by a policy that permitted such undercover work only with the approval of the managing director.

"I knew they had informants," Timoney said. "Everybody's got informants. The issue is the Philadelphia Police Department. The only way you can infiltrate is if I sign off on it.

"First of all, I don't believe in this horses-. Number 2, I didn't sign off on anything. Now other people said, 'You used the state police.' That's bulls-."

* One mass arrest that ended in a complete failure for the prosecution began Aug. 1, when police surrounded the "puppet warehouse," which was used for making props, floats and other propaganda.

Relying on information from the four undercover troopers, Philadelphia police moved in. They found bags of concrete and sand, gas masks, a roll of metal fence mesh, pipe and other materials, and arrested everyone in the building, including the owner and office manager.

That night, the District Attorney's Office charged all 75 people with nine misdemeanors each, including conspiracy to block a highway. The 75 spent the next several days behind bars.

In DeLeon's court, the four agents testified that the warehouse was a beehive of planning for illegal street blockades. But they could not identify a single person who engaged in the planning and had to acknowledge that the owner and office manager were never involved.

DeLeon said that although there appeared to be illegal activity in the warehouse, he could not convict anyone the police could not identify after the indiscriminate roundup.

"When they swooped down, they got everybody," the judge said. "Those who might have been doing something peaceful and those allegedly doing something illegal."

The District Attorney's Office withdrew the charges last month.

Another raid at the warehouse conducted by the Department of Licenses and Inspections made any colorful street demonstrations impossible. The agency arrived with empty trucks the day after the mass arrests. It loaded, and later destroyed, material left behind - signs, banners, satirical puppets of Uncle Sam and the like, as well as more than 100 mock skeletons symbolizing those executed in Texas on death warrants that Gov. George W. Bush signed.

"The reason we didn't see extraordinarily nuanced and sharp, crisp actions," the Ruckus Society's Sellers said, "was because the banners, the props, the puppets, the costumes, all the regalia, all the political message, was stolen, was silenced, was seized in that puppet space before the activists could get it out into the streets."

Rudovsky said that police were right to worry about keeping the peace but that they went too far.

"On one level, the city and police were concerned about possible violence. Can they put that on the table and be concerned? Sure. But I think what happened is they started to equate any kind of protest that involved any kind of possible illegal activity with the kind of violent actions that they saw in Seattle."

Linda K. Harris's e-mail address is lharris@phillynews.com

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