11 Call for Action: Political group feels targeted by undercover officers, group found guilty of blocking traffic

Published: Nov. 2, 2017 at 5:44 PM MDT
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UPDATE (3/31/18, The Gazette):

Undercover agents infiltrated their ranks and police cruisers tailed them through the streets of downtown Colorado Springs. After a daylong trial, four members of a student-led protest group were convicted of obstructing traffic.

A Municipal Court jury on Friday found Andrew Hunt, 23, Taylor Donner, 24, Eric Verlo, 56, and Nazli McDonnell, 55, guilty of a single misdemeanor count, while acquitting them of a second misdemeanor alleging failure to disperse.

Impeding a roadway is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Sentencing is scheduled for May 21.

The four were arrested March 26, 2017, following what officers acknowledge was a peaceful protest, albeit one that flouted traffic ordinances as a group of roughly 15 protesters took their March Against Imperialism into the streets.

For 15 minutes, members of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs-chartered Marxist discussion group blocked or slowed traffic on an eight-block route beginning and ending at City Hall, as they chanted and waved signs warning of capitalism and climate change, police testified in Colorado Springs Municipal Court.

"That's what created the great six-car traffic jam on a Sunday evening," derided attorney David Lindsey of Denver, who represented Donner. Lindsey angled for the jury to toss the charges despite footage from police dash cams, body cams and downtown security cameras documenting nearly every step they took through the streets.

The trial in city court marked the conclusion of an unusual case that revealed secret efforts by Colorado Springs police and their partner agencies to monitor local protest groups by embedding undercover officers posing as socialists.

Police have previously refused to provide details on how common the practice is or whether they have modified their approach in the wake of publicity over last year's protest.

The sting operation, which emerged in video evidence turned over by police before trial, fueled a defense effort to have the cases dismissed for "outrageous governmental conduct." Judge Kristen L. Hoffecker threw out the motion in December, stating in a written order that police were justified in surveilling protest groups because of violence committed at protests elsewhere in the wake of President Donald Trump's election.

But the operation - conducted by Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence (VNI), a multiagency police unit - was so guarded that the two undercover agents involved in attending a protest planning meeting at a Colorado Springs brewpub were permitted to testify last year without using their real names. One of them identified himself as a deputy with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

Members of the group and their attorneys framed their arrests as an attempt to quash an unpopular message.

They pointed to comments made by police on their own recordings, including one officer who said, "I wish my camera wasn't on right now." Another officer mocked their cause, telling longtime local protester Verlo he could rejoin his "compatriots" after he'd been served his summons outside City Hall.

When Verlo pointed out that most protesters had dispersed upon seeing him arrested, the officer retorted, "Some protesters they turned out to be."

City attorneys said the group ignored repeated orders to disperse broadcast through loudspeakers mounted to police cars.

"It's not about the message they communicated," said city prosecutor Shantel Withrow. "It's about the conduct and choosing to break the law and break ordinances as they protested."


PREVIOUS (12/6/17):

A court hearing wrapped up Wednesday for a local political group trying to get their tickets dismissed following a protest in downtown Colorado Springs.

In court, it was revealed for the first time that the undercover officers were actually with the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the body camera footage obtained by 11 News, one undercover officer said he was a deputy with the sheriff's office.

Officers testified that based off of other violent protests following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, police felt the need to monitor the local group. Their attorney said there was zero evidence that they forced the defendants to do anything illegal.

The group's attorney argued the group had no history of violence and their rights were violated. He asked that the charges for jaywalking and failure to disperse be dismissed.

The judge will have about a week to decide if the charges will be dismissed or if the case will be taken to trial.


PREVIOUS (11/2/17):

A local political group is accusing local law enforcement of going undercover to infiltrate one of their rallies. Those taking part in the protests feel they were targeted.

11 News obtained body camera footage of a rally held by The Colorado Springs Socialists from back in March. In the video, a man dressed as a protester eventually admits he's actually an undercover deputy.

Members of the Colorado Springs Socialists group say they don't understand why an officer with a loaded gun infiltrated their protest.

"It's a group of mostly students who are interested in seeing a more kind of socialist system governing the country," said Eric Verlo, a member of the group.

Verlo is one of a few protesters who was ticketed at the rally for marching in the streets of Colorado Springs.

Eric, and others who were ticketed, are now fighting to dismiss the tickets by accusing officers of misconduct.

"In order for law enforcement agencies to infiltrate groups they have to have a reason, a criminal reason ... they have to have a sense that this group they want to infiltrate is doing something criminal," said Verlo, who insisted that the group that's about a year old has never been involved in anything violent.

Some clips from a Colorado Springs officer's body camera start after the protesters moved out of the streets and back to the steps of City Hall. One officer acknowledges there are two "undercovers" or UCs in the crowd.

"There are two UCs in the crowd," you can hear a voice in the body camera footage. "They'll just take a ticket like everybody else."

Eventually, officers took a man into custody because they believed he had a knife in his pocket. When they search him, officers find a loaded gun.

"Is he one of the UCs?" you can hear a sergeant asking in the body camera footage. "Huh," is the response from another officer. "Is he one of the UCs?" "Yea he was pointed out by one of the other guys." "No, no, is he one of the undercovers? There are two undercovers who are in the crowd, I don't know who they are."

Turns out, the man CSPD officers had put in handcuffs was with the sheriff's office.

"Are you with sheriff's? Really?" the question can be heard through the body camera footage. "Don't you remember me?" the man being put in custody questions back.

"It's very hard to understand why a sheriff's agency, or the city, or who knows what agency decided it wanted to insert operatives and, in this case, armed operatives into a student reading group," Verlo said.

Colorado Springs police tell 11 News they operate a multi-agency group called the Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division.

A spokesperson told 11 News that the division can monitor groups at public rallies to make sure everybody is safe.

The department could not speak specifically on the protest back in March because of the pending court case involving the tickets given to protesters. The spokesperson did add that the Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division has many different responses if a group is gathering that has a potential to be violent or to have violence brought against them.