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Meet ‘Bob Smith,’ The Fake Facebook Profile Memphis Police Allegedly Used To Spy On Black Activists

New records obtained by the Appeal show the account seems to have been monitoring Black Lives Matter activists for years.

Screenshot/Facebook

Meet ‘Bob Smith,’ The Fake Facebook Profile Memphis Police Allegedly Used To Spy On Black Activists

New records obtained by the Appeal show the account seems to have been monitoring Black Lives Matter activists for years.


Last week, The Appeal broke news on documents revealing that Memphis police were surveilling Black Lives Matter activists and distributing dossiers on individual protesters among law enforcement. Among the revelations was the discovery that the Memphis police appear to have used a fake Facebook profile named “Bob Smith” to befriend and gather information from these activists’ private social media posts.

The Appeal has now obtained screenshots of interactions that this alleged police account has had with multiple activists. The records show that the account, at times, gave activists contradictory information and sought to gain their trust.  

The police department was confronted with the “Bob Smith” account in an April 2018 deposition for the ACLU of Tennessee’s lawsuit over the surveillance. During the deposition of a police officer who had engaged in surveillance operations, the city’s lawyer claimed answering questions about the “Bob Smith” account might disrupt past, present, or future police investigations.

When an ACLU attorney asked point blank if it was a police account, the officer’s lawyer declared that they would not allow any testimony “on the details as to how the Bob Smith account is employed by the Memphis Police Department.” Later when the ACLU asked about whether a police officer had other social media accounts beyond those he used personally, his lawyer again insisted he not answer because that would get “into the details potentially of the Bob Smith account.”

The account appears to have tracked activists for years. Facebook messages obtained by The Appeal, show that Bob Smith was friending activists as early as August 2015. One activist, who wished to remain anonymous citing fears of further police scrutiny, said that they received a friend request from Smith as late as February 2017, around the time of protests over President Trump’s travel ban.

In one June 2016 Facebook Messenger conversation with another activist, reviewed by The Appeal, the account claimed to be “Tim Ryan” from “Fayette County.” In their conversation, the account said that he was politically to the “left of Bernie,” referring to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and even referenced other Memphis activists in an apparent effort to gain trust and access. The activist responded, “Fuck yes. I’ve been seeking like minded thinkers locally. It’s a relief to know they’re out there.” In a phone call, the activist, who requested anonymity citing personal safety concerns, confirmed that he eventually accepted the friend request. Two months after the conversation in which “Bob Smith” said he was “Tim Ryan,” this activist was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest for “criminal trespass.”

Activists suspect that this “Tim Ryan” account is operated by Memphis police detective Timothy Reynolds. The released police documents also strongly suggest Reynolds’s involvement with the account. The records show that Reynolds was able to see and identify an activist’s private Facebook post, which he then forwarded to a colleague to screenshot. In court, Reynolds said his personal social media accounts are “locked down” and are “mainly police officers and college buddies.” Because of this, Reynolds’s personal account may not have been able to access such a private post, but “Bob Smith,” a Facebook friend with many activists, could have.

The court documents also note that Reynolds and a partner were the primary agents leading the department’s social media protest monitoring efforts. Beyond tracking activists and their associates, Reynolds went so far to acquire an undercover cell phone, which he used to contact the same activist that “Bob Smith” friended, while calling himself “Tim Ryan,” according to the documents.

A slide from the Memphis police department's presentation on activists and their friends

The Memphis Police Department declined to respond to The Appeal’s questions about Reynolds’s alleged involvement in the Bob Smith account and other questions about the account’s activities.

In a 2017 interaction with another activist, however, this Bob Smith/ “Tim Ryan” account contradicted his earlier claims. To this activist, he claimed to be from Oxford, Mississippi, and did not give the name “Tim Ryan” when asked, simply calling himself a “fellow protester” and insisting that he was not a cop.

Despite these seemingly clumsy techniques, Memphis organizer Keedran Franklin told The Appeal that several activists let their guard down, as they were getting a flood of friend requests at the height of police brutality protests in 2016. “A lot was going on in the bridge protest, so people got into this culture of accepting friends without checking,” Franklin said in a phone interview. He said that instilling a culture of digital security has become a major emphasis in the activist community since then. “So people would trust it because of their mutuals in the social justice world.”

This approach may have allowed Memphis police to further track the activist community. According to the police deposition documents, as The Appeal previously reported, the Memphis police obtained a friends-only Facebook post of activist Paul Garner, who had recommended a Saul Alinsky book. The police then not only collected information on that post but the names of 58 friends who “liked” the post. In a phone call, Garner said he found such collateral collection one of the most “disturbing” parts of the revelations.

“These are people who just follow my posts and aren’t even actively involved but may support our work,” said Garner.

Asked why he accepted Bob Smith’s friend request, Garner said that he, like many, activists is always seeking to meet with like-minded progressive community members. “I’ve noticed that account liking my stuff over the last few years, and I’ve always assumed there are cops on my profile, many of whom I’ve blocked,” said Garner, referring to the Smith account, which he says is now blocked. “Since then I have been checking friend requests more.”

The first anonymous activist said their stance on security has also changed somewhat, but that their old attitude is still shared by many in their community. “Back in 2016, I was a little more lenient,” said the activist, who noted that they realized the dangers of surveillance during pipeline protest activities. “But even to this day I have 16 mutual friends with Bob Smith.”

The Facebook account describes Bob Smith as a “Protestant” and “anarchist.” Smith’s “liked” pages include several activist groups, such as Black Lives Matter groups and a Palestinian solidarity group. The account also “liked” the pages of a local historically Black Baptist church, Bernie Sanders, the Southern Poverty Law Center, I Love Being Black, and Red & Black Anarchists 2.

The account’s “events” page also included a variety of progressive demonstrations, including local police-reform group action in 2016 and labor-affiliated actions, such as a “$15 for Memphis” rally in 2015.

According to emails released by the city over the course of the ACLU’s litigation, social media surveillance helped police track activists in real time. A September 2016 email, for example, showed how police at Memphis’s Real Time Crime Center were updating each other on activists’ meeting locations.

One of the anonymous activists interviewed by The Appeal said that this apparent online surveillance was disturbing, despite its sometimes clumsy execution.

“That can be hilarious when you’re talking to Bob Smith online,” said the Memphis activist. “But it’s terrifying when you see how they just arbitrarily decide that someone’s dangerous and then unlawfully surveil someone or their family or friends,” referring to the fact that police tracked not only activists’ posts but who had “liked” those posts on Facebook.

Franklin believes that the police tactics were intentionally harming the activist community. “They wanna scare people to silo out the movement, and that will happen as some people will sit back too scared to come around,” said Franklin. “To go after who is liking people’s posts, it makes me feel they are targeting our family and friends. They’re trying to get as many connections and contacts as they can.”

This dragnet community surveillance extended beyond activists, and into the larger Black community in Memphis, as Brentin Mock noted last week in CityLab. Authorities attended numerous events undercover, such as church meetings, food truck festivals, and a memorial service for Darrius Stewart (a 19-year-old killed by Memphis Police in 2015).

The revelations support many residents’ suspicions that some Memphis police do not want to work with Black residents and may even seek to harm them, said Tami Sawyer, a Democratic nominee for a seat on the Shelby County Commission, who was named at several points in the police surveillance documents.

“My parents have always been concerned if I’ve done work for Black Lives Matter or anti-Confederate statue protests,” Sawyer said in a phone interview. “Whenever I go out of the house, my dad says ‘you got your car lights working?’ , ‘you got your license?’ because he doesn’t trust that I’ll be kept safe. … That’s hard for me as a daughter to know my father knows I’m a target of the city for speaking up.”

The path forward, argued one of the activists, is not in trying to stop all police surveillance, a task he says is impossible, but to go forward knowing the risks. “There’s no way around surveillance,” he said in a phone call. “So you have to act being firm in your belief, being out there blatantly, being committed to your principles.”

The Ferguson protests are resonating in St. Louis County’s Aug. 7 elections, and more

The Ferguson protests are resonating in St. Louis County’s Aug. 7 elections, and more


In This Edition of the Political Report

Four years after Michael Brown’s death, the Ferguson protests are resonating in St. Louis County’s Aug. 7 elections. Today, you’ll read about those primaries and other local stories:

  • Georgia: Criminal justice reform a defining issue in governor’s race

  • Missouri: St. Louis prosecutor faces first opponent since Ferguson protests

  • Missouri: Ferguson activist challenges Democratic member of Congress

  • Utah: Utah County has been debating oversight of prosecutors

  • Washington: Legislative candidate attacked over support for second chances

I’ll detail results of the Aug. 7 elections in the newsletter’s next edition. In the meantime, you can use this database to track the outcome of the three races I profile below, and of the Platte County race I profiled two weeks ago. And keep in touch—I welcome your tips and feedback!

Georgia: Criminal justice reform a defining issue in governor’s race

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s gubernatorial race, has made criminal justice reform central to her unusually progressive campaign. She has laid out a detailed platform with the stated goals of decreasing incarceration and facilitating the re-entry of people released from prison. The first priority she lists is eliminating cash bail, which she calls a form of “wealth-based discrimination.” Other proposals include decriminalizing marijuana possession, increasing alternative-sentencing programs, and raising the age at which teenagers are treated as adults. This document also advocates “banning the box,” as in barring employers from asking about job applicants’ conviction history.

Even if an Abrams governorship coincided with continued Republican control of the legislature, recent history suggests that certain GOP lawmakers could be open to working with her on some of these goals. Under Republican Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia passed a series of reform bills that enhanced diversion programs, scaled back mandatory minimums, and required judges to consider a defendant’s finances when setting bail. (The city of Atlanta also adopted an ordinance  this year that restricts the use of cash bail for some municipal and misdemeanor offenses.) These laws have contributed to a decline in Georgia’s incarceration rate, with the number of people entering prison in 2017 at its lowest since 2002.

Abrams faces Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, who benefited from President Trump’s endorsement to decisively win the Republican nomination on July 24. Much of Kemp’s campaign revolves around toughening law enforcement. He wishes to facilitate deportations and implement a new database to track immigrants, as well as pour money into increased anti-gang policing and prosecution. “Gang members” should “never see daylight again,” he wrote in one op-ed.

Abrams also frames expanding Medicaid and other public health policies as essential for re-entry and rehabilitation. Georgia has for now rejected the Medicaid expansion funds provided by the Affordable Care Act. This has contributed to the crisis that has hit the state’s hospitals, forcing closures and threatening low-income Georgians’ access to healthcare. Unlike Abrams, Kemp opposes expanding Medicaid and wants to create work requirements for existing recipients, an idea that has gained new life under the Trump administration. Work requirements are especially burdensome for people released from incarceration because of the obstacles to employment that they face, as Emma Sandoe, a Ph.D. candidate in health policy at Harvard, explained in February.

Missouri: St. Louis prosecutor faces first opponent since Ferguson protests

St. Louis County’s longtime prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch is seeking an eighth term, four years after the 2014 Ferguson protests. That year, he drew heavy criticism for the way he handled his investigation into Michael Brown’s shooting and for his failure to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown. His actions fit a long pattern of cases in which he did not press charges after police shootings of unarmed Black men, Pema Levy reported at the time.

In the Aug. 7 Democratic primary, McCulloch faces Wesley Bell, a former public defender who was elected to the Ferguson City Council in 2015. The primary winner will face no opponent in the November general election.

McCulloch is campaigning as a “public safety” candidate and warning against the advocacy of reform groups. “That is a real danger to public safety. They don’t think people ought to go to prison,” McCulloch said according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But Bell has campaigned on a need for reform. “That antiquated model of focusing on conviction rates and looking strong, that model is not working and is not making us safer,” he said.

What does this contrast mean for concrete policies? In their answers to a lengthy questionnaire prepared by the ACLU of Missouri, Bell makes a series of reform commitments that McCulloch does not mirror. (You can read Bell’s and McCulloch’s full answers.) Commitments that only Bell makes include: never seeking the death penalty, eliminating money bail for nonviolent offenses, supporting the creation of safe injection sites, opposing legislation that sets new mandatory minimums, reducing the share of cases in which prosecutors seek the maximum sentence, and considering the immigration ramifications of prosecutorial decisions. While campaigning, Bell is specifically spotlighting his stance on money bail, for instance tweeting this brief video on why he opposes its use.

As for the issue that looms over this race, Bell states in his questionnaire that he would entrust investigations into police misconduct to an independent unit or independent prosecutor. During the 2014 protests in Ferguson, McCulloch faced calls for a special prosecutor to take over because of concerns that he was not impartial, but he did not recuse himself.

The candidates operate on different financial planes. McCulloch has raised $370,000 since his current term began in 2015, and more than $200,000 this year alone; Bell has raised $124,000, much of which just over the past few weeks. In addition, McCulloch has been endorsed by “every living former police chief in St. Louis County,” Alan Greenblatt reports. Local organizations supporting Bell include Indivisible St. Louis and the Ethical Society of Police.

Missouri: Ferguson activist challenges Democratic representative

Criminal justice and policing reform are in the spotlight in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, which includes St. Louis and Ferguson. One of the candidates in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary is Cori Bush, a pastor who participated in the 2014 Ferguson protests and other local initiatives, and helped organize subsequent rallies. She has also worked as a director of the Truth Telling Project, a group that aims to document the stories of people who have suffered from police brutality. Bush has anchored her campaign on targeting the school-to-prison pipeline, which in one video interview she proposes doing via economic justice and public health reforms like expanding mental health coverage, fighting food deserts, and creating job training programs.

Bush is challenging Representative Lacy Clay, who has held the seat since 2001 and is close to the Democratic leadership of St. Louis County. After Michael Brown’s shooting, Clay lobbied for police reforms like more body cameras and de-escalation training; he supports Medicare for All, as does Bush. He is now campaigning on his legislative experience and on the advantages that his congressional seniority brings to the district, while Bush highlights “the experience that I have from the street.” “When you fight for the community, when you walk with the community, when you’re boots to the ground … now that’s another thing,” she said in the video interview. Two other Democrats will be on the ballot, DeMarco Davison, who recently suspended his campaign, and Joshua Shipp.

Utah: Utah County has been debating oversight of prosecutors

Prosecutorial misconduct draws little accountability in Utah. “A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of court documents and public records show[s] Utah’s prosecutors are rarely disciplined, even as complaints of misconduct are brought to light during court proceedings or in the appeals process,” Jessica Miller wrote in her detailed 2017 investigation.

Last year, the Utah County commission proposed creating a review board external to the county attorney’s office to investigate allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The idea was backed by the ACLU of Utah and the Libertas Institute, and also by residents demanding more oversight of prosecutors. But it derailed in February after police and prosecutors rallied against it. County Attorney Jeff Buhman called it “a direct attack” on prosecutors, proposing instead an internal board that would report to the county attorney.

Buhman did not run for a new term this year. The ensuing Republican primary, tantamount to winning the election in this typically GOP-voting county, ended with the victory of David Leavitt, the former county attorney of a smaller county who has also worked as a public defender. Leavitt defeated Chad Grunander, who works in the county attorney’s office.  

Leavitt and Grunander offered differing views on whether to create an external review board, the Daily Herald recounts. Grunander’s stance was similar to the incumbent’s: clear opposition. But Leavitt defended the idea of an external board, though one that would operate statewide under the attorney general’s control rather than at the county level. This disagreement mirrored a wider clash between the two on whether prosecutorial misconduct is a problem in Utah County. Grunander rejected that premise, but Leavitt said that the commission’s proposal was born of a series of “abuses” that had “made the citizens rise up and say ‘enough is enough.’”

Leavitt did not reply to a request for comment clarifying his stance on the board as proposed. The Utah County commission indefinitely tabled its proposal in February, so I will track whether it picks it up again and what position Leavitt adopts in response if he wins in November. His only general election opponent, Libertarian Andrew McCullough, supports an external review board.

Washington: Legislative candidate attacked over support for second chances

In 2017, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously reversed a decision by the State Bar Association to block Tarra Simmons from taking the bar exam because of her criminal record. Emily Randall, a Democrat running for the state Senate this year, turned to social media that day to express support. “In law, like in any profession, we need diversity,” she wrote on Facebook. “Tarra’s path and her raw conviction to change her life—and help others change theirs—makes her even more qualified to practice law.”

Republicans have since used this Facebook post to attack Randall as “too soft on crime.” “Randall has supported Tarra Simmons, a drug-addicted ex-con who was denied admission to the Washington State Bar Association due to multiple felony convictions,” a recent campaign mailer said. The mailer was sent by WA Forward, a PAC affiliated with prominent GOP lawmakers; Randall’s Republican opponent Marty McClendon has since disavowed the attack.

I asked Randall how her support for Simmons would translate into policies that foster second chances. She mentioned her support for the rehabilitative Post Prison Education Program and called for a focus on fighting the “school-to-prison pipeline” by “lower[ing] costs and other systemic barriers at all levels of education.” She also made a case for expanding the ability of young defendants to remain within the comparatively rehabilitative juvenile system. “Science is clear that young people’s brains do not stop fully developing until they are 25 years old,” she said.

Washington State’s 26th Senate District is in Pierce County, south of Seattle. It is held by a retiring Republican. There are three candidates on the Aug. 7 ballot: McClendon, Randall, and Bill Scheidler, an independent. The top two will move on to a November runoff. This is a swing district that has voted evenly in recent presidential elections, according to Daily Kos Elections data. Its result could determine the balance of power in Olympia, where Democrats currently hold a one-seat majority in the state Senate.

The death penalty is one issue where this election could make a difference. The Washington Senate narrowly voted to abolish it in 2018, but the House adjourned without picking up the bill. Randall told me that she would vote in favor of abolishing the death penalty if the bill came up again next year, emphasizing its ineffectiveness as a deterrent. McClendon has indicated support for the death penalty.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

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Failure-to-Comply Arrests Reveal Flaws in Sex Offender Registries

In one Pennsylvania county, more than three times as many people on the registry were charged in 2016 with failing to follow registry requirements than were charged with a new sexual offense

A Pennsylvania State Police vehicle
Raymond Clarke Images/Flickr

Failure-to-Comply Arrests Reveal Flaws in Sex Offender Registries

In one Pennsylvania county, more than three times as many people on the registry were charged in 2016 with failing to follow registry requirements than were charged with a new sexual offense


In January 2015, Franklin Barrick packed his bags and moved out of his home near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, leaving his wife behind. For most, the end of a marriage would bring divorce proceedings in civil court, but for Barrick it yielded felony criminal charges.

Why?

Because Barrick is on the sex offender registry. In 2007, he was arrested for having sexual conversations via internet chat programs and sending sexual images to a person who he thought was a 13-year-old girl but turned out to be agents with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. As a registrant, Barrick must alert police when he changes his residence, purchases a new vehicle, attends school, or even opens a Facebook account.

So when Barrick failed to alert authorities after he left his wife, he was charged by Pennsylvania State Police with felony failure to comply with sex offender registry requirements. In April 2015, he was taken into police custody and held for nearly 200 days in Franklin County Jail on $60,000 cash bail set by the judge.

Later, Barrick pleaded guilty to two counts of felony conduct relating to sexual offenders—failure to notify—and was sentenced to 11 to 23 months’ confinement plus 21 years’ probation. He was also ordered by pay more than $2,000 in fines and fees.

Hundreds of people every year in Pennsylvania are arrested and face incarceration for failing to comply with sex offender registry requirements. People on the registry are required to provide their address, work information, information about vehicles they drive, social media accounts, and other personal information, as well as regularly have their photograph taken by police. When any of that information changes, police must be notified within three days. The Appeal identified nearly 900 criminal cases where a defendant was charged with failure to comply with sex offender registry requirements in Pennsylvania in 2016 alone.

But sex offender registry laws do not increase public safety, says Chrysanthi Leon, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. “We’re really creating a false sense of security for ourselves when we convince ourselves that by detecting and naming and then further surveilling this small group of people will solve any problems,” Leon told The Appeal. Leon said most charged sexual offenses are committed by first-time sexual offenders and not by people who are on the registry.

Barrick is just such a first-time offender. After being caught in the internet sting by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office in 2007, he entered a guilty plea to four counts of felony unlawful contact with minors and was sentenced to 21 years’ probation. There is no record that Barrick engaged in similar conversations with minors afterward or committed any act of sexual violence. His only other arrest was for a decades-old charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. Furthermore, there is nothing in court records to indicate that Barrick made any effort to commit a new offense, sexual or otherwise, while away from his home in 2015.

A study conducted of sexual crimes in New York by Jeffrey Sandler, Kelly Socia, and Naomi Freeman in 2008 found more than 95 percent of registerable sexual offenses and more than 94 percent of sexual offenses against children in the state are committed by first-time offenders. The researchers reviewed more than 170,000 charged sexual offenses in the state between 1986 and 2006.

The Appeal’s review of charging records in Franklin County yielded similar results. An analysis of all charged criminal sexual offenses in the county in 2016 found only three cases where a defendant was on the registry when a new offense was committed. And more than 96 percent of defendants charged with a sexual offense in 2016 had no criminal history of sexual violence.

“Focusing attention and resources on the small number of known, registered sex offenders detracts attention from the more common types of sexual offenses that occur, leaving people vulnerable to sexual abuse and creating a false sense of security,” the sex-crime study authors wrote.

Indeed, there is a large body of research demonstrating that people who are charged and convicted of sexual offenses—the only people listed in the registry—have a low risk of reoffending. A 2016 report issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found the sexual reoffense rate for people convicted of rape was less than 6 percent. In a study led by Kristen Zgoba of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, researchers found that the implementation Megan’s Law—which created sex offender registries in all 50 states—and registry requirements in the state had no demonstrable effect on reducing sexual victimization or reoffending but cost the state more than $4 million to continue as of 2006.

Despite evidence that sexual offenses are not committed by the people named on sex offender registries and that registries are an ineffective but expensive way to prevent sex crimes, police and prosecutors continue to file felony charges and incarcerate people for technical violation of registry requirements.

In Franklin County, more than three times as many people on the sex offender registry were charged failing to comply with registry requirements in 2016 than were charged with a new sexual offense, The Appeal found. “We’ve used the registry as though it’s a risk prediction tool, or a public safety tool,” Leon, the criminal justice professor, said, “and it doesn’t function that way.”

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