Did police go too far in undercover Occupy mission?

September 1, 2012 9:00:58 PM PDT
When Occupy protesters chained themselves together with PVC pipes outside the Port of Houston in December, they might have expected to get arrested and perhaps even charged with misdemeanors for disturbing the peace, but they did not imagine getting felony charges.

That protest and those arrests led to an investigation involving Austin police officers who infiltrated the Occupy movement. They are accused of being part of the action that led to the charges.

The key question here: did Austin police officers go too far when they went undercover during the local protest?

Defense attorney Greg Gladden says they did, and the resulting charges are wrong.

"There is no probable cause to be charging these people with felonies for this free speech demonstrations," Gladden said.

Gladden represents Ronnie Garza, one of the protestors arrested that day and charged with an obscure law -- unlawful use of a criminal instrument. The law makes it a felony for someone to manufacture something for the sole purpose of committing a crime. The instruments in this case were "lockboxes" made of large PVC pipes and other materials.

After a little digging, Gladden discovered the alleged source of the human chains.

Three officers from Austin PD apparently went undercover during the Occupy the Port protest at the Port of Houston in December. Gladden says one of those officers -- Detective Shannon Dowell -- came up with the idea to have protestors chain themselves together using lockboxes.

"The police officers went and bought the material, manufactured what they're calling "sleeping dragons," also known as lockboxes."

When Garza and others agreed to chain themselves together in the street, they were arrested and charged. Now, Gladden is trying to get the charges dropped.

"I think the case needs to be dismissed for police misconduct because they were the ones that broke the law, and they entrapped all these young, idealistic kids," Gladden said.

We asked Austin police why undercover officers were at the protests.

"The primary mission of these officers was to protect the free speech activities of those engaged in lawful protest as well as initiating police response and action with regard to criminal activity," Austin PD Assistant Chief Sean Mannix said. "Plain clothes officers blending with the surroundings were necessary for the safety of the participants and the community as a whole."

Judge Joan Campbell dismissed charges against Garza once due to lack of evidence, but the case was sent back after a grand jury indicted him.

In a hearing last week, Det. Dowell, a narcotics officer, went before a Harris County judge and confirmed he was an embedded police officer during the Occupy movement. He also testified he had no interactions with local police or deputies while they were embedded with the Occupy protestors. The extent of his involvement in the lockbox plan is still up in the air.

Gladden thinks Austin police need to re-think their roles and duties on the streets.

"I think they ought to be out protecting the citizenry and preserving law and order," he said.

Austin police won't comment on the specifics of the ongoing criminal trial, but they say there's no internal investigation into the actions of the undercover officers.

The next court hearing is set for Wednesday.


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