Colorado Rights Blog



  • Executive Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley spoke at the marriage equality rally on March 3rd

  • Leisel Kemp, whose brother Jason was killed by CSP after they entered his home without a warrant, spoke at the 2013 Bill of Rights Dinner about the ACLU’s legal advocacy on behalf of her family.

  • Out of Sight, Out of Mind is an original short film from the ACLU of Colorado about a man who has spent 17 years in solitary confinement and now suffers from debilitating mental illness.

Chronology of Spy Files Controversy

March 11, 2002
ACLU holds news conference…
At a news conference on March 11, 2002, the ACLU of Colorado disclosed documents that show that the Denver Police Department has been monitoring and recording the peaceful protest activities of Denver-area residents and keeping files on the expressive activities of law-abiding advocacy organizations, many of which are falsely labeled in the files as “criminal extremist.”

March 11, 2002
ACLU asks Mayor Webb to take action…
In a letter also sent on March 11, the ACLU asked Denver Mayor Wellington Webb to take immediate steps to stop the police department’s practice of keeping files on peaceful protest activities. The ACLU also asked the Mayor to take four additional actions:

  • prohibit the police from sharing their Spy Files information with other law enforcement agencies;
  • order a full public accounting of the Spy Files and the Denver Police Department’s spying on the First Amendment activities of peaceful protesters;
  • notify individuals named in the Spy Files and permit them to review the files that the Denver Police Department compiled about them;
  • and preserve the Spy Files, because they might be evidence in any forthcoming lawsuits.
  • ACLU letter to Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, March 11, 2002

March 13, 2002
Mayor Webb acknowledges ACLU’s concerns…
In a news conference two days later, Mayor Webb stated that the Denver Police Department’s Intelligence Bureau had compiled computerized files on 208 organizations and approximately 3200 individuals. He acknowledged that at least some of the files should not have been compiled, and he said he would order an independent review. He also said that the inappropriate files would be purged and that the subjects of the files would receive some form of notice that a file had existed and had been purged.

Mayor Webb’s press statement, March 13, 2002

In his news conference, Mayor Webb handed out copies of the City’s written policy that governs police intelligence gathering [PDF]. It clearly prohibits gathering and maintenance of intelligence information about First Amendment activities “unless such information directly relates to criminal conduct or activity and there is reasonable suspicion that the subject of the information is or may be involved in criminal conduct or activity.” Rather than acknowledge directly that Denver police were violating this written policy, Mayor Webb blamed an “overly broad interpretation” of the policy.

Denver’s written policy that governs police intelligence gathering: Denver Police Department Intelligence Systems Information [PDF]

March 18, 2002
Denver City Council adopts Resolution endorsing civil liberties…
The disclosure of the Denver Police Department’s political surveillance files on peaceful protesters influenced the discussion and final text of an ACLU-endorsed Denver City Council resolution that originally was drafted and proposed to confirm the City’s commitment to civil liberties in the wake of the U.S.A. Patriot Act. On March 18, 2002, the council approved the resolution with newly-added text prompted by the Spy Files controversy.

The resolution reaffirms the City’s already-existing (but apparently ignored) policy on intelligence gathering and states that Denver police should not gather information on individuals’ First Amendment activities unless the information relates to criminal activity and the subject is suspected of criminal activity.

Denver City Council, Resolution No. 13-02, adopted March 18, 2002, Expressing the Commitment of the City and County of Denver to Civil Rights and Liberties[PDF]

March 25, 2002
ACLU asks Police Chief to disclose Spy Files information…
On March 25, 2002, the ACLU wrote to Denver Police Chief, Gerald Whitman, pursuant to the Colorado Open Records laws, asking him to disclose information about the Spy Files without infringing on individuals’ privacy. The letter asks for disclosure of the Spy Files on all 208 organizations listed in the database, as well as the individual files on specified persons on whose behalf the ACLU was writing. The letter also asked Chief Whitman for additional documents regarding the operation and maintenance of the Spy Files, such as the criteria for labeling an organization as “criminal extremist.”

ACLU letter to Denver Police Chief Gerald Whitman, March 25, 2002

March 29, 2002
Police Department declines to disclose information…
In a reply to the ACLU dated March 29, 2002 [PDF], the Denver Police Department declined to disclose any information from the Spy Files. The letter also stated that most of the additional documents requested by the ACLU (such as documents revealing the criteria for listing groups as “criminal extremist” or the criteria for disseminating information from the Spy Files) did not exist.

Denver Police Department’s reply to ACLU, dated March 29, 2002 [PDF]

March 28, 2002
ACLU files lawsuit against City and County of Denver…
On March 28, 2002, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in state court to challenge the Denver police department’s custom and practice of spying on peaceful protesters, maintaining the Spy Files, and disseminating information from the files to third parties.

ACLU news release, March 28, 2002: ACLU of Colorado Files Class Action Lawsuit Challenging Denver Police Spy Files on Peaceful Protest Activities

Class Action Complaint, American Friends Service Committee v. City and County of Denver, filed in court March 28, 2002 [PDF]

In April, 2002, the City and County of Denver exercised its right to remove the Spy Files case from state court to federal court, where it was assigned to Judge Nottingham. The City filed a motion to dismiss, and the ACLU filed its response on June 11, 2002.

ACLU’s response to City and County of Denver’s motion to dismiss Spy Files lawsuit, filed in court June 11, 2002 [PDF]

Judge Nottingham denied the motion to dismiss in a one-page order dated October 21, 2002.

Late March 2002
Mayor Webb hires three former judges to review Spy Files…
In late March, 2002, pursuant to Mayor Webb’s plan for an independent review of the Spy Files, Denver hired three former judges (William Meyer, Roger Cisneros, and Jean Dubofsky) to review the Spy Files database and make recommendations. In April, they distributed a draft of a proposed revised policy about the gathering and storing of criminal intelligence information. On May 14, 2002, the judges conducted an open hearing to hear comments from the public about the proposed policy. The ACLU participated in the hearing and later provided written comments.

ACLU letter to panel of former judges conducting review of Denver police Spy Files, dated May 17, 2002

April 21, 2002
Rally at State Capitol Protests Denver Police Spy Files…
On April 21, 2002, the Tyranny Response Team sponsored a rally on the steps of the state capitol to protest the Denver Police Spy Files. Participants included members of the Libertarian Party, the Colorado Green Party, and several motorcycle clubs, including Bikers for Justice. According to a Denver Post report, many of the motorcycle cub members left the rally after organizers warned that police officers were systematically taking down license plate numbers of vehicles parked nearby.

June 30, 2002
Review Panel issues report and recommends policy changes…
On June 30, 2002, the former judges issued a seven-page report [PDF] describing their review of the Spy Files and presenting their recommendations to the City. The judges recommended:

that the City adopt a proposed new policy to govern intelligence-gathering activities of the police [PDF];

that the City purge from the intelligence files the names of individuals and groups for whom the police did not have specific facts amounting to reasonable suspicion of ongoing criminal activity

that the subjects of the purged files be provided a limited 60-day opportunity to review the files (with names of others deleted to protect their privacy);

that the purged files be destroyed after 60 days.

Click here to read the full document: Report of Panel Appointed to Review Denver Police Department Policies for Collection and Retention of Criminal Intelligence Information, June 28, 2002 [PDF]
The report of the former judges left many questions unanswered. It failed to explain, for example, how Denver police came to regard peaceful protests as crime scenes, or how the police justify the false labeling of peaceful advocacy organizations as “criminal extremist.” Although the Spy Files violate the City’s already-existing written policy on intelligence gathering, the former judges opined that there was no reason to punish any police officers. According to the report, the captain of the Intelligence Bureau who wrote the policy did not bother to distribute it to the other intelligence officers.

July 22, 2002
Mayor Webb adopts most of former judges’ recommendations…
On July 22, 2002, Mayor Webb announced that the City would adopt all of the recommendations in the judges’ report except the recommendation to destroy the Spy Files.

Both before and after the former judges issued their report, the ACLU of Colorado urged Denver officials to take responsibility for actively notifying individuals and groups whose names appear inappropriately in the Spy Files. Although Denver police spokespersons initially agreed that they would provide that notice, the City’s final plan, announced August 1, failed to fulfill that commitment.

August 1, 2002
City announces procedures for limited disclosure of Spy Files…
On August 1, Denver officials announced that for a two-month period beginning September 3, the Denver Police Department would permit the targets of inappropriate political surveillance to review their files. Instead of providing notice to the subjects of the files, however, Denver said it would require individuals to come to the police station in person during specified hours and show identification just to find out if files on them exist.

August 29, 2002
Magistrate Judge Rules That 22 Intelligence Files Are Not Subject to Discovery..
Responding to the United States Attorney’s concern that 22 files in Denver’s intelligence database are the subject of pending criminal investigations by the FBI, Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer conducted an in-chambers inspection and ruled that the files would not be subject to discovery in the pending federal court lawsuit.

Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer’s Order, August 29, 2002[PDF]

September 3, 2002
Denver Police Department begins limited disclosure of Spy Files…
On the evening of September 3, hundreds of individuals packed the Denver police station to request the opportunity to review their files. The police department’s restrictive and cumbersome procedures immediately prompted criticism, particularly the police department’s refusal to notify individuals if a file exists and the refusal to permit persons to request their files by mail.

September 16, 2002
Police find more Spy Files and announce new procedures for disclosure…
On September 16, the Denver Police Department announced that its collection of Spy Files is more extensive than it had previously disclosed.

In a news release and in subsequent statements to the press, Chief Whitman announced that a search for documents in connection with the ACLU’s lawsuit turned up additional paper intelligence files. He said he had assigned six detectives to sort through the newly discovered documents.

Chief Whitman further announced that in light of the new documents and the criticisms of the existing disclosure procedures, the department would modify the process for permitting citizens to determine if they are the subjects of inappropriately-maintained intelligence files.

The news release stated that starting September 17, 2002, the Denver Police Department would attempt to contact those individuals and organizations that have a purged intelligence file. In addition, requests by mail and by persons authorized by power of attorney would now be honored if certain procedures are followed.

In redrafted procedures dated October 18, 2002, the Police Department extended the time period during which the Spy Files may be reviewed. The purged intelligence files will be available for review “until Further Notice.”

October 16, 2002
ACLU files Motion for Protective Order in the Spy Files lawsuit…
On October 16, 2002, the ACLU filed a motion in the Spy Files lawsuit in federal court arguing that the City and County of Denver had gone too far when it served a discovery request on the plaintiffs seeking detailed information about their First Amendment activities. In the challenged discovery request, Denver’s attorneys asked the plaintiffs to provide:

A list of every organization with which they have affiliated since 1999;

Membership lists for each plaintiff organization for the last four years;

An account of every expressive activity in which they have participated since 1999, as well as names of other participants;

Details of each time plaintiffs have spoken about issues raised by the Denver Police Department’s political spying, and the names of persons who may have heard their comments

In the motion, the ACLU argued that these and other discovery requests propounded by Denver’s lawyers endangered the very First Amendment rights that the lawsuit was filed to protect.

See Plaintiffs’ Motion for Protective Order[PDF], filed October 16, 2002

November 21, 2002
Colorado Springs police collect information for Denver Spy Files…
The ACLU of Colorado released documents today that reveal that the Colorado Springs Police Department has collected intelligence information on the expressive activities of peaceful critics of government policy and sent its information directly to the Denver Police Department for inclusion, with other information about First Amendment activities in Colorado Springs, in the controversial Denver Police Spy Files.

See “Springs Police Spied on Local Activists,” Colorado Springs Independent, November 21 – 27, 2002

December 18, 2002
Spy Files controversy returns to front pages…
Beginning on December 18, 2002, and continuing for several days afterwards, both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News published several prominently-placed articles about the Spy Files controversy. They reported that in depositions taken in the ACLU’s lawsuit, police officials testified that the Denver Police Intelligence unit did not have an official policy in place that barred it from creating and maintaining criminal intelligence files on peaceful protesters who were not suspected of any crime. This testimony contradicted statements made by Mayor Webb at his news conference on March 13, 2002, when he distributed a document he identified as the City’s written intelligence policy.

“Denver police made up their own rules about just who and what would go into [the] city’s notorious ‘spy files,'” according to the lead paragraph in the Rocky Mountain News article of December 18, headlined “Spy files lacked consistent rules.”

“Depositions in a lawsuit against Denver police show a disorganized, loosely run intelligence unit in which untrained officers spied on thousands of citizens whose only crime was to exercise their right to free speech,” according to the Denver Post’s front-page story of December 18, titled “Suit against police shows repeated scrutiny of free speech.”

December 19, 2002
Spy Files controversy emerges as issue in 2003 mayoral campaign…
The handling of the Spy Files controversy has become in issue in the campaign for Denver mayor, the Rocky Mountain News announced on December 19, 2002. The paper noted that the Spy Files posed questions for candidate Ari Zavaras, a former chief of police who also oversaw the police department as Manager of Public Safety from 2000 until the summer of 2002.

At a December 19 news conference, the All Nations Alliance asked Denver Auditor Don Mares, also a candidate for mayor in the Spring, 2003, election, to conduct an accounting to determine how much Denver would save if it stopped collecting information on the political views of peaceful protesters. The following week, Mares asked the police department for financial records regarding the Intelligence Unit.

December 22, 2002
Former police chief and mayoral candidate contends police did have spy policy
At a news conference held on December 22, mayoral candidate Ari Zavaras contradicted deposition testimony in the Spy Files lawsuit and declared that, when he was Chief of Police, the department did have a formal written policy that prohibited police from building dossiers on the political views of law-abiding protesters. Quoted in the Denver Post as saying that “depositions are not necessarily factual,” Zavaras distributed copies of the newly-discovered policy, which Denver officials had never produced in the course of the ACLU’s lawsuit. The document, which regulates what it calls “special interest activity,” states that intelligence information can be gathered only on organizations that advocate or participate in criminal conduct.

Policy distributed at Ari Zavaras’s December 22 news conference

Press statement of Ari Zavaras, December 22, 2002

December 26, 2002
Denver Post Asks Federal Court to Ease Its Confidentiality Order…
On December 26, 2002, the Denver Post filed a motion to participate as a party in the Spy Files lawsuit. The newspaper asked to intervene for the limited purpose of arguing that certain documents that Denver disclosed to the ACLU in connection with the lawsuit are inappropriately marked as “confidential.” Pursuant to the Court’s confidentiality order of July 12, 2002, that “confidential” designation prohibits the ACLU attorneys from disclosing the information outside the lawsuit. The paper’s motion argues that at least some of those “confidential” documents should be released to the Denver Post and to the public.

Denver Post’s Motion to Intervene, December 26, 2002

The Court’s confidentiality order (“Order re Stipulation and Protective Order”), dated July 12, 2002

January 4, 2003
Additional Spy Files could be hidden in homes of Denver intelligence officers..
Reporting on a hearing in the Spy Files case, the Rocky Mountain News revealed the contents of a memorandum discussed in federal court on January 3, 2003. The 1998 memo, written when Denver Police Department Intelligence officers were beginning a “purge” of the paper intelligence files to prepare for moving to the new Orion database software, instructed that “purge” did not necessarily mean “destroy.” Instead, according to then-Commander of the Intelligence Unit Joe Black, intelligence officers could “purge” a file by taking it home. The explanation, according to the memorandum, was that: “The heart of an Intelligence Bureau lies with the ability to maintain integrity of all files and references in the likely event of litigation by political or subversive groups.”

Memorandum to “All Troops,” by Lt. Joe Black, Commander, Intelligence Bureau, November 2, 1998[PDF]

January 31, 2003
Denver Police declare that Spy Files will no longer be available for review…
Beginning January 31, the Denver Police Department stopped honoring requests from members of the public who want to find out if they are subjects of the Spy Files.

February 20, 2003
Public Safety Review Commission begins inquiry into Spy Files…
The Denver Safety Review Commission, which provides civilian oversight of the police department, began a series of public hearings about issues raised by the Spy Files controversy. At the request of commissioners, ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein provided a critique of a new intelligence policy that the Denver Police Department quietly adopted in October, 2002. Additional public hearings scheduled for April are expected to include testimony from officers of the Denver Police Department’s Intelligence Unit.

April 17, 2003
ACLU announces agreement to resolve Spy Files lawsuit….
The ACLU announced the terms of an agreement reached with Denver to resolve the Spy Files lawsuit. The agreement cannot will not become final until it is submitted to Judge Edward Nottingham for approval.

“ACLU, Denver, agree to resolved lawsuit over Denver Police Spy Files,” ACLU News Release, April 17, 2003
Settlement Agreement, announced April 17, 2003[PDF]

Settlement Agreement, Exhibit 1, new DPD Intelligence Policy[PDF]

May 5, 2003
New documents raise questions about JTTF, MAGIC…
The ACLU disclosed documents from the Spy Files litigation that show that the FBI’s Joint Terrorist Task Force (JTTF) has been collecting information about peaceful protesters who have no connection to terrorism or to any other kind of criminal activity. Additional documents reveal that at least two dozen Colorado law enforcement agencies swap political intelligence information at bimonthly meetings of an organization known as the Multi-County Group Intelligence Conference (MAGIC).

Joint Terrorism Task Force gathering information on peaceful protesters

Police agencies swap political intelligence at MAGIC meetings

May 7, 2003
Judge Nottingham approves settlement of Spy Files lawsuit…
The Spy Files settlement became effective today with Judge Nottingham’s signed order. For a ninety-day period beginning today, the Denver Police Department will once again permit individuals and organizations to find out if they are the subjects of any of the Spy Files that will be purged. Members of the public can request their files in person or by mail.

June 17, 2004
Spy Files to be archived, indexed, and available at Denver Public Library
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper announced that the Denver Police Department’s Spy Files will be indexed, archived, and available to the subjects of the files and members of the public, as part of the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection. The announcement came after months of discussions between ACLU attorneys, the City Attorney’s Office, and archivists employed by the Denver library.

When the archiving and indexing process is completed, some time after February, 2006, any person will be able to review documents referring to them by name, with the names of other individuals redacted. Names of organizations will not be redacted. Individuals representing organizations will be able to review any documents mentioning that organization. Copies will be free for the first year. Some portions of the collection will be open to all members of the public; others will be closed to the public for 50 years. Additional details are provided in Mayor Hickenlooper’s news release.

“Spy Files Archives to be Housed at Denver Public Library,” text of Mayor Hickenlooper’s news release, June 17, 2004

August 21, 2003
Public Safety Review Commission issues preliminary report on Spy Files scandal
In a preliminary report about its investigation of policy issues raised by the Spy Files controversy, the Public Safety Review Commission (PRSC) recommended that the City Council adopt an ordinance that would forbid any Denver police officers, including those assigned to work with the FBI in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, from engaging in any activities prohibited by the new intelligence policy adopted as part of the settlement of the Spy Files lawsuit.

The PSRC also urged that the intelligence policy be amended to forbid the Denver Police Department from sharing information with organizations such as the Multi-Agency Group Intelligence Conference (MAGIC).

Preliminary Report of the Public Safety Review Commission Regarding the Denver Police Department Intelligence Files, August 21, 2003

October 15, 2003
ACLU sues Denver to obtain JTTF document
Relying on the Colorado Open Records Act, ACLU filed suit against the City and County of Denver, seeking disclosure of the Memorandum of Understanding that sets out the terms of the Denver Police Department’s participation in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

October 27, 2004
Third Audit Report on Spy Files Released
In an audit report submitted pursuant to the resolution of the Denver Spy Files controversy, the auditor hired by the City and County of Denver said that he was not provided sufficient information to determine whether or not Denver police officers assigned to FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force are complying with the Spy Files Settlement Agreement and Denver’s new policy on gathering intelligence.

Third Audit Report, Denver Police Intelligence Bureau, October 27, 2004

Correspondence between Spy Files Auditor and Chief of Police, October 2004

December 2, 2004
ACLU files FOIA request seeking documents on FBI political surveillance
At a news conference, the ACLU of Colorado presented documentary evidence that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, contrary to its public statements, has been collecting information about the peaceful protest activities of Colorado residents and the constitutionally-protected activities of law-abiding advocacy groups. The Colorado ACLU also announced that under the Freedom of Information Act, it had filed a formal request on behalf of 16 organizations and 10 individuals to obtain additional documents about the monitoring of their expressive activities by the Denver Division of the FBI and the Denver-based Joint Terrorism Task Force.

FOIA request submitted by ACLU of Colorado to Denver Division of FBI

December 30, 2004
ACLU urges Denver elected officials to reconsider participation in JTTF
In a letter to Denver’s Mayor and each member of the Denver city council, the ACLU of Colorado urged that the city’s elected officials evaluate whether Denver should continue participating in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

ACLU letter to Denver Mayor and City Council raising concerns about Denver’s continued participation in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, December 30, 2004