Memphis’s Struggle Against Unjustified Police Surveillance

By Tommy Gonzales


The Memphis Police Department (MPD) once again found itself in hot water when another case of politically motivated spying was discovered by local activists in August of 2020. This time, a police surveillance camera was discovered facing a regular meetup location for local union members.

Near a family members home where a Memphis labor union holds its meetings, an organizer became suspicious when a box labeled “high voltage” appeared on a light pole near the property in August. After another local activist retrieved the box a camera was discovered inside. When questioned on the 19th of August as to the presence of the camera, Memphis Light Gas and Water validated local activists suspicions when it stated to Fox 13 Memphis that,

“The camera in question was actually an MPD covert camera they installed temporarily and did not go through the normal attachment process”

Under the Kendrick Consent Decree of 1978, MPD is forbidden from gathering intelligence on activists and organizers for political purposes. It explicitly restricts police from covertly surveilling individuals or groups not involved in criminal activity. In this case, however, the police department was able to skirt the confines of the decree by claiming the surveillance camera was for temporary usage only.

The Memphis Police Department’s intelligence gathering operations targeted at activists, unions and critical journalists has a history which can be dated back to the city’s legendary civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. As the movement for black lives gained prominence over the course of the last decade, the city of Memphis saw its police department resort back to its strategy of covert surveillance.

Currently, however, the police are aware that carrying out politically motivated surveillance operations runs the risk of legal repercussions.   In 2017 a judge ruled against the city in favor of the ALCU’s claim that police violated the 1978 consent decree when it began spying on local activists through Facebook and composed a “black book” of local civil rights organizers. In this case, the city of Memphis was sued for 1.1 million dollars.

On the 21st of September, the ACLU won a second major victory when U.S District Judge Jon McCalla sided with the organization on modernizing sections the 1978 Kendrick Consent decree. The forty-year-old decree’s dated status led to confusion around the question of how body cameras and social media should factor in. For example, the ruling on the question of body cameras stated that officers can use their body cameras at protests. However, compiling body camera footage of activists complying with the law is clearly forbidden. Also notable, is the ruling that MPD is restricted from using third parties to carry out politically motivated surveillance.

Despite the existence of the 1978 consent decree, activists and labor organizers in Memphis have long found themselves at the receiving end of police surveillance. Much of this activity has been justified by MPD by deeming the 1978 consent decree as too vague in certain areas. With the recent victory of the ACLU, some of the gaping loopholes in the decree have been closed. Now that it has been provided clarification on several key points of contention, finding an answer to the question regarding whether the Memphis Police Department can break its habit of covert and sometimes illegal surveillance is still to come.


Further Reading

Connolly, Daniel. “Judge Rules in Memphis Political Surveillance Fight, Sides with ACLU on Key Issue.” The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Commercial Appeal, 22 Sept. 2020, www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2020/09/21/aclu-tennessee-city-memphis-lawsuit/5860786002/

Coy, Greg. “Activists Find Camera inside Mysterious Box on Power Pole near Union Organizer’s Home.” WHBQ, 20 Aug. 2020, www.fox13memphis.com/news/local/activists-find-camera-inside-mysterious-box-power-pole-near-union-organizers-home/5WCLOAMMBRGYBEJDGH6C74ITBU/

“Judge Rules That Memphis Police Spying Violates 1978 Court Order.” ACLU of Tennessee, 27 Oct. 2018, www.aclu-tn.org/judge-rules-memphis-police-spying-violates-1978-court-order/

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