CSPD identifies protesters through social media 


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On Tuesday, June 30, at 8:15 p.m. approximately 50 Black Lives Matter protesters and a half-dozen vehicles blocked northbound Interstate 25 traffic at the Bijou Street on-ramp for almost an hour. The protest was covered by a number of news outlets as it happened, and it was livestreamed by participants, spectators and commuters alike. The move to block I-25 came as a surprise to many, and caught the attention of the community.

“They need to be arrested! Where are our leaders? Why are we being held hostage to these lawless marauders?” commented one Facebook user on a post about the protest from KKTV News. Other users on that post commented support for arrests and violence, including running over protesters.

“In order to best protect our community and our officers, we temporarily closed the highway and diverted traffic with the full intent of making arrests if necessary,” said Colorado Springs Police Department Chief Vince Niski in a statement shared on Facebook July 1. “I share in your frustration, as our freeways serve as a vital part of our community and are an unsafe environment for any kind of demonstration.”

In addition to vitriolic Facebook comments, CSPD received a number of calls regarding the protest. “We definitely had calls for service from people,” says Lt. James Sokolik, CSPD public information officer, “and of course lots of complaints since then. We were responding to people blocking the I-25 corridor. It’s unsafe to do that.”

Niski said in his Facebook post that CSPD chose to deploy its Public Order Response Team (PORT) “to disperse the demonstrators and make any arrests if necessary to reopen the highway. The team is made up of CSPD officers specially trained to handle public order events or incidents, both planned and unplanned. With the help of the Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado State Patrol, a detour was set up to divert traffic around the blockade until PORT could respond.”

Demonstrators dispersed before PORT arrived, according to the statement. 

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While most drivers on I-25 were diverted away from the protests, some chose to patiently wait it out. Tom and Denee — who declined to provide their last names — and their three children were caught in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protest.

“We’re heading home after hiking up in Helen Hunt Falls,” said Denee at the scene of the protest. 

“I thought, ‘I haven’t seen a protest for two or three days,’” said Tom. “When I saw those blinking lights I started thinking I knew what was coming. We thought, ‘We’re going to be a part of it; we’re going to settle in.’ We’re teaching our kids what it means to not continue the cycle.”

“My boyfriend and I were on our way home,” said Montana Gottman, another driver at the scene. “I had gotten out of the car and I took videos and pictures.”

The protesters relocated from the Bijou on-ramp to the 7-Eleven at Garden of the Gods Road and I-25, where five CSPD squad cars arrived after “a reporting party, who was not involved in the incident, did call our dispatch center around 9:44 p.m.,” according to acting Public Information Officer Natasha Kerr. 

When CSPD officers arrived at the 7-Eleven, they began photographing license plates and interviewing drivers and individuals in the parking lot. Jordan Reece and Shequan Smith were cited that night as a result of blocking I-25 traffic, and not specifically for their actions in the protest. On July 2, the CSPD Twitter account announced that Reece was cited for “Impeding Normal Flow of Traffic” and Smith for “Stop When Traffic Obstructed.”

On July 3, the CSPD Twitter announced that “Four more were identified and arrested for 18-9-107 Obstructing a Highway or other Passageway, a Class 3 Misdemeanor,” which included Reece and Smith, who were given additional citations, as well as two others. Fourteen people have been arrested in connection with the protests as of July 21, according to CSPD’s Sokolik.

“Typically when we release information about arrests that’s on Twitter,” notes Sokolik, “and we had numerous media requests for the names of those individuals. Once we have multiple people ask we put that on Twitter so everyone has that information.”

CSPD has cast a wide net trying to identify the protesters. Gottman, the bystander who had posted photos and videos of the protest on her Instagram account, was contacted. “I got the text at work. I didn’t know who it was so I asked, and she [Detective Nancy Hwang] said who she was. When I called her she said it was because my name popped up with a photo of a girl with a sign.” 

Hwang questioned Gottman about her involvement with the protest. “She asked me to verify how far away [I was from protesters], how long I stayed there, what color car I was in,” Gottman recalls. “She asked me if I knew about the protest and if I knew anybody [who was present]. I didn’t.”

Gottman believes CSPD used her social media to track her down. “I think it’s because I posted the picture of the girl and a video of the protest. I did not tag ‘Colorado Springs’ or anything.”

Sokolik couldn’t provide any answers about CSPD’s official use of social media to investigate crimes. “That’s not something we can speak of one way or another,” he says. “That would be an investigative technique, if we do, and we never discuss investigative techniques.” 

The use of social media by law enforcement has been a contentious issue during these protests. In an article for Cnet by Queenie Wong, Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, notes that “very few police departments have policies that limit social media monitoring to investigating crimes.”

“We have policies for everything,” says Sokolik. “Any investigative technique we might use would of course be overseen by a supervisor.”

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One of the problems with reliance on social media is the possibility of misidentification. Olivia Romero was grading assignments as part of her teaching assistantship as a UCCS graduate student on the night of June 30. She was surprised to find herself a subject of CSPD’s investigation.

“Wednesday [July 8] morning I got a call,” says Romero. “It was from a Detective [Dan] Mork. He was real rude about it, real pushy. ‘Well, we have evidence that you were there, we’re just looking for some explanation.’ I told him I don’t have an explanation because I wasn’t there.”

Romero was shocked. She says, “I’ve been involved in activism for about four years now. I’m pretty active. How did they get my name? How do they know who I am? I wasn’t there.”

The prospect of facing legal action was daunting. “I don’t know what this would do for future jobs,” says Romero, who works with children with disabilities. “What if I had been charged and gone to jail for that? I was in the process of starting a crowdfund because the attorney asked for $3,500. It’s a lot to fork out for something I didn’t do.”

Luckily for Romero, CSPD caught their mistake. “The next day I was at work, getting ready to leave before 4 p.m.,” she recalls. “My roommate messaged me saying ‘The cops are here. Good news, you’re innocent.’ So I guess they showed up asking for the citation back because they reviewed this video again and realized it wasn’t me.”

“The investigation revealed that [Romero] was not the person involved, so that summons was canceled,” says Sokolik. “Any time, obviously, we get further investigations that show that this is not the correct person, we’re not going to allow that to continue.”

While detectives investigate suspected protesters, CSPD Internal Affairs has launched an investigation into reports that an as yet unnamed sergeant commented “KILL ‘EM ALL” on KRDO’s livestream of the I-25 protest. One of the issues raised by protesters across the country is bias in policing and disparate treatment under the law.  Sokolik stated that “the comments made on the KRDO live-stream were unprofessional, inappropriate, and not reflective of our department’s values. Our officers, just like our community members, are afforded due process whenever any type of investigation takes place.”

On Friday, July 24, the activist group Colorado Springs Oversight (see p. 10), founded by Jasmine Marchman and Martin Lewis, sent a letter to Mayor John Suthers, Chief Niski and a number of media outlets, claiming to have knowledge of the officer’s identity and urging Suthers and Niski to “take a stands against a far-too-long history and culture of violence and racism at the mouths and hands of CSPD.” During a protest at Colorado Springs City Auditorium on July 24, Marchman said she wanted the mayor or CSPD to be the ones to release the officer’s identity.

Sokolik confirmed that the detectives investigating the I-25 protest are Detective Dan Mork, Det. Hwang and James Strachan. When asked about these officers’ disciplinary history, Sokolik responded that “we would not just provide the general public with their disciplinary actions.”

Mork’s name does appear in a 2009 Gazette article by Lance Benzel, which says, “Officer Dan Mork was disciplined after a bizarre episode on Aug. 7, 2008, in which a hawk swooped down and attacked a sergeant outside the Sand Creek substation, bloodying his forehead. After the attack, Mork walked toward a hawk feeding on carrion. He claimed that as he approached, a different hawk began diving in his direction, prompting him to draw his pistol and fire in self-defense. Police dismissed ‘rumors’ that Mork was seeking to avenge the attack on his colleague but concluded that he placed himself in danger by approaching a bird that was feeding. The hawk flew away after the shot was fired.” 

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