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Police investigation clears undercover SC officers who attended New Year's parade meetings
February 11, 2006 Police investigation clears undercover Santa Cruz officers who attended New Year's Eve parade meetings by Shanna mccord Sentinel staff writer SANTA CRUZ — A Police Department internal investigation released Friday shows public safety was at stake on New Year's Eve and officers did nothing wrong when they decided to go undercover to community planning events prior to the downtown holiday celebration.
Police administrators, the report says, felt they had no other means of getting details about the community group's plans for the unsanctioned "Last Night DIY" parade.
No major incidents were reported at the New Year's Eve celebration.
Word of police undercover presence at planning meetings in October and December, where two officers wore plain clothes and gave false names, was met with criticism from parade organizers and others in the community.
Friday's report, several hundred pages long, said the department did nothing wrong, not only because public safety was in jeopardy, but because no specific policy was in place related to undercover surveillance of community groups.
Police Chief Howard Skerry, as the internal investigation took place, felt it was necessary to create a policy that states future undercover action of community groups is only to be taken when "there is reasonable cause to believe that the group or individuals within the group are involved in the planning of and/or intending to engage in illegal or violent activity."
Parade planner Wes Modes, a Felton artist and carpenter who also goes by the name "Rico Thunder," said the Police Department's undercover actions in gathering information about the group's New Year's Eve plans violated the First Amendment, and the internal investigation doesn't go far enough.
"No way. If this is the result, we'll call for an independent investigation," Modes said Friday. "We'll call on the City Council to make it illegal to spy on peaceful and political community groups."
Councilman Tony Madrigal proposed an independent investigation in January, but the council majority preferred to wait for results of the Police Department's internal investigation.
City Manager Dick Wilson praised the department's internal investigation Friday, saying, "They've done a really thorough job. Nobody broke any rules or violated any policies."
Wilson said an independent investigation probably would not show any new or different information.
Police officers Carter Jones and Wesley Hansen were sent to planning meetings for the Last Night DIY parade on Oct. 29 and Dec. 17 after Deputy Chief Kevin Vogel, who led the internal investigation, became aware that a renegade community group was planning a downtown parade in which no city permits or permission would be obtained.
Last Night organizers posted their plans on a Web site that indicated defiance of the city's special event policies.
The site stated, "We're just gonna do it...It's our city...Who's willing to take the risk of truly living without limits?"
Vogel said he didn't think the group would be cooperative in providing information about their New Year's Eve plans if asked directly by uniformed officers. However, he never tried.
"From a public safety perspective, the Last Night DIY event caused concern for me," Vogel stated in the report. "I did not want there to be a repeat of past violence downtown as a result of a large scale gathering of people in downtown Santa Cruz who were planning some type of parade and were clearly defying the city processes for having such an event."
On New Year's Eve in 1993, champagne bottles and rocks were thrown at police officers. Halloween 2004 celebrations led to two people getting stabbed downtown. Seven people were stabbed on downtown streets last Halloween in what police have said was gang-related activity.
Vogel said the undercover operations were meant to find out what community groups were planning to participate in the parade and how many people were expected to attend.
"The information gathered by Jones and Hansen was invaluable to the operations and deployment" of police officers downtown on New Year's Eve, Vogel said in the report.
According to the internal investigation, Lt. Rudy Escalante told Jones and Hansen they could drink a little alcohol during the planning meetings, if it was offered, to fit in and not be suspected of being a police officer.
Jones and Hansen helped convince parade organizers to begin the New Year's Eve events in the late afternoon instead of later in the night to make it safer for the public and easier for police to control, according to the report.
There were also discussions during the parade planning meetings about "cop tamers" to distract police, and rerouting the parade up Cedar or Front streets if police tried to intervene, the report said.
The city's Public Safety Committee — made up of council members Mike Rotkin, Ryan Coonerty and Ed Porter — will review the Police Department's report at 4 p.m. Monday. The report will also be discussed at Tuesday's council meeting.
The internal investigation will be reviewed by police auditor Robert Aaronson of Palo Alto.
Contact Shanna McCord at smccord [at] santacruzsentinel.com