After a student activist group at Michigan State University uncovered a campus police officer who was posing as a student to investigate the organization, University of Michigan officials insist that the Department of Public Safety does not employ such tactics.
“This isn”t how we do business here,” said DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown. “We honor and respect First Amendment speech rights so thoroughly on this campus.”
Nevertheless, at last weekend”s Hash Bash, DPS Officer Paul Vaughn sported a tie-dyed t-shirt and mingled in the crowd while snapping photos of the event.
“My job is to take photos of the activities,” Vaughn said.
Brown said Vaughn wasn”t the only photographer at Hash Bash and that picture-taking is routine during large rallies.
“We do a lot of photography work whenever we”re in crowds where our officers are perhaps going to be surrounded,” Brown said. “That would include football games, or something like (Hash Bash).” Brown added that Vaughn was not seeking out students but instead “folks who were engaged with our officers.”
For more than a month, Michigan State campus police officer Jamie Gonzalez posed as junior “Samantha Volare” to participate in meetings and rallies of the activist group Students for Economic Justice, according to The State News, Michigan State”s student newspaper.
Michigan State Assistant Chief Jim Dunlap said in a written statement that the undercover investigation was meant to prevent possible violence caused by the activists during World Bank President James Wolfensohn”s commencement address on the campus this spring.
Brown said the University of Michigan has other means of investigating suspicions of illegal activity.
“We may confront student groups, but we would fully disclose that we are police officers,” Brown said.
RC senior Peter Romer-Friedman, a member of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, said he has never been aware of any DPS infiltration. “They”ve come to our meetings and stood outside to observe the number in attendance, and even picked up literature,” Romer-Friedman said. “But to my knowledge, there”s been no infiltration.”
Romer-Friedman added that DPS officers have also worked to protect SOLE members from being intimidated by outsiders.
Brown said there is no DPS officer with the sole responsibility of keeping an eye on student activists, saying that officers work instead with their areas of specialty. For instance, Brown said, officers with experience in sexual assault would work with relevant student groups. But Romer-Friedman said that during SOLE”s occupation of University President Lee Bollinger”s office two years ago, a DPS detective told him that his primary job was to watch activist groups.
Brown noted that there could be some confusion over a DPS sergeant whose main responsibility is to work with student organizations that are scheduling special events and may have security needs. Despite the University policy against infiltration that Brown cited, there has been a history of campus and national organizations keeping reports on activist groups.
In 1973, The Michigan Daily reported that the co-founder of the Weatherman, an activist offspring of the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, was associated with an FBI informant and may have been a government agent himself.
According to the article, Weatherman”s co-founder was “in direct and continuous contact with Larry Garthwohl, a confessed FBI informer,” while serving as a leader in the group.
In 1970, activists discovered a two-foot thick file on themselves in the Reserve Officer Training Corps files in North Hall. The file was mostly stuffed with newspaper clippings of SDS activities, as well as glossy photos of several activists and a series of communications between military and University officials on procedures for handling disruption of the ROTC program. The Daily quoted ROTC Commander Russell Hurd as saying that the pictures were taken by both ROTC personnel and University officials to keep track of anti-ROTC activities.
“The University asked us to take some of those pictures,” Hurd said in the original article. “We did so for awhile until we ran out of film.”
But many of the clippings in the file made no mention of the ROTC or other military activities. Al Haber, the first president of SDS and a University alum, said he doesn”t believe the University has used police infiltration in the form of an officer disguised as a student activist but it”s possible that it has happened.
“I”m sure the University would deny it until they”re caught with their pants down,” he said, adding that infiltration isn”t just about gathering information. It”s also about destroying a movement by “putting a lie in the middle of the discussion,” he said.
“It”s very destructive to democracy,” he said. “It”s deceitful. You”d think public servants wouldn”t practice deceit.”