By Sam P.K. Collins
Years ago, as Black Lives Matter DC railed against the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), core organizer April Goggans often posted online about a marked police car parked in front of her home and other instances of alleged intimidation.
Her lawsuit against MPD, two years in the making, revolves around a 9,000-page dossier that police department officials refuse to release.
The outcome of the civil suit, predicted to end in early April, boils down to the question of what constitutes as “monitoring and surveillance” as expressed by Goggans in her initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Once again, interpretations of that term was the focal point of a hearing this month in D.C. District Court.
“The Metropolitan Police Department has 9,000 pages of documents it knows contains April’s name, Twitter handle, and street address,” said Andrew Mendrala, supervising attorney and teaching fellow at Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic.
“But the original FOIA request for documents used the term ‘monitoring and surveillance.’ MPD said that because none of these pertain to an official investigation of specialized divisions of MPD that conduct large-scale monitoring and operations, they do not show ‘monitoring’ of Ms. Goggans, and MPD is not required to turn them over,” Mendrala said.
Goggans’ June 2017 FOIA request outlined 14 points. The first five asked for documents concerning Goggans, records and communication about her, policy manuals and directives on how to approach political activists, details of officer trainings about the right to political free speech, and communication between MPD and the Executive Office of the Mayor (EOM) about Goggans or Black Lives Matter.
The other nine items concerned records about monitoring Goggans, including any communication between MPD, EOM and other parties, about Goggans, an active member of Black Lives Matter, and records from when officers parked in front of her home.
From the onset of the lawsuit, MPD’s legal team maintained that MPD fulfilled Goggans’ original request.
During a December court hearing, MPD’s lawyers argued that the only correspondence falling within that definition had been from Goggans to MPD in which she discussed monitoring and surveillance. They later said the department had no legal obligation to release what it considered irrelevant information, like that found in Officer Daniel Flinn’s notebook.
An official in the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, speaking on background, reiterated that point, saying that Goggans’ team didn’t expand its definition of “monitoring and surveillance” until after litigation started.
Earlier this month, as a large group of Black Lives Matter supporters watched, Goggans’ attorneys argued that a more reasonable broadening of the MPD’s interpretation of “monitoring and surveillance” allows for the release of pertinent information that would substantiate Goggans’ claims of police surveillance, including the names of officers involved.
Judge William Jackson listened as Goggans’ attorneys recounted hurdles in the FOIA process, including an eight-month struggle to add Goggans’ name to the searches, and questions about the degree to which MPD searched for Goggans versus Black Lives Matter.
Jackson at times appeared annoyed, but lighthearted, as he struggled to understand what Goggans’ attorneys didn’t receive from MPD. Toward the end of the hearing, the attorneys acknowledged that MPD searched for Black Lives Matter and Goggans’ name.
MPD didn’t return The Informer’s request to define “monitoring and surveillance.”
Goggans, who carries a decade of organizing experience in southeast D.C., counted among the activists who took to the streets in the aftermath of Terrence Sterling’s police-involved death in 2016. Last year, after the release of footage from a controversial stop-and-frisk incident in Northeast’s Deanwood neighborhood, she and other members of Black Lives DC designated the community as a liberation zone.
In her role as core organizer, Goggans has also advocated for the full implementation of Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, legislation designed to expand community-based violence interruption services throughout the District.
Black Lives Matter groups nationally have been embroiled in similar legal battles, with local police departments for data collected about activist groups.
In November, a federal court judge in the Southern District of New York ruled that individual Black Lives Matter activists could sue the Clarkstown Police Department for their information. Last month, a New York state judge ordered the New York City Police Department to answer a FOIA request about its alleged use of phone signal interruption technology.
Mendrala noted what he described as the certain uniqueness of Goggans’ case.
“The case is a bit of an unusual dodge that MPD is making by saying that they have all of these documents we asked for but MPD decided they actually aren’t what we’re asking for, so they won’t give them to us,” he said. “They’re hiding behind a bureaucratic use of language that no reasonable person could be expected to understand or use when making a request.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer.