THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
On May 6, 1969, the Main Library of the Toledo-Lucas Public Library system was host to a gathering of individuals described as scruffy, long-haired hippies -- local members of the Students for a Democratic Society.
During the meeting, the group debated free sex, the injustices of a social order plagued by racial prejudice, the unfairness of the school system, and the corruption of authority figures, including their parents. The content of the leaders' speeches prompted speculation about possible communist training.
The young leftists were not the only ones in the library that afternoon. Also present at the meeting was Ramon G. Carr, an undercover officer in the Toledo Police Department's intelligence unit. Relying on the library employee in charge of branch operations to alert him when the students had reserved rooms, Officer Carr observed the participants and substance of the meetings and reported his findings to then-Deputy Police Chief Erwin Oehlers. His work is chronicled in a series of confidential intelligence reports filed that year.
Those documents, along with hundreds of others, are part of a recently uncovered archive of the intelligence unit's surveillance work from 1967 to 1973. Organized crime and illegal gambling were the unit's main priorities, but it also gathered information on local organizations spanning the political spectrum, from the KKK and White Panthers to the Students for a Democratic Society, the National Socialist Party, and Black Panthers. The documents show no evidence of the incitement that characterized the FBI's infamous surveillance program known as COINTELPRO, but they do show police monitoring of legal political activities.
"We would surveil them when they came into town. We'd identify who they were, who their leaders were, who they were meeting with, who they were recruiting," explained Gene Fodor, a detective who worked with the intelligence unit from 1965 until it was dissolved in 1977.
He recalled one of the unit's tactics to infiltrate and win the trust of the groups it monitored, describing a delicate dance that required teamwork, timing, and tact. Along with several other officers, Mr. Fodor would attend an organization's meeting and wait for speakers to denounce law enforcement, as they often did. Then, with a burst of apparent outrage, he would rise and point out his fellow undercover officers. The groups would kick out those officers and often welcome Mr. Fodor into their ranks, grateful for his watchful eye and unaware that he too was a part of the system they opposed.
According to the documents, some of the individuals whom Mr. Fodor's unit monitored were in high school, enrolled at Central Catholic and Start. Others were professors at the University of Toledo, ministers, and businessmen. Many of the reports include personal information such as dates of birth, Social Security numbers, hair and eye color, height and weight, addresses, employment status, typical clothing style, and romantic relations. When compiling one list of members of the UT chapter of SDS, the unit researched the political affiliations of a participant's cousins.
For more than 15 years, though, all that information was missing. The archives of the intelligence unit were housed in the original Toledo Police Historic Museum, but when it closed in 1994, retired police Officer Bill Kellar stored the files -- along with old lie detectors, a police motorcycle, an antique police car, and other items from the museum -- in the back of a semitrailer parked at Pit Stop Towing for safekeeping.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
But the files were not forgotten. Ken Dickson, a local author of several books about local history, had asked to access the files for his research on Toledo organized crime, eventually taking his request to court when the department did not produce the materials.
But no one in the Safety Building could locate the files. Kenneth Deck, the founder of the police museum and the only person who knew the exact contents of Mr. Kellar's storage site, had died. The intelligence documents did not resurface until 2010, when the new Toledo Police Museum opened in Ottawa Park and museum volunteers unpacked Mr. Kellar's trailer.
A source of concern
Back when the intelligence unit was filling those documents -- with photographs, membership lists, tips, reports on meetings and rallies, activist flyers, and communication between the Toledo police and state and federal law enforcement -- branches of the organizations that it monitored here were cause for concern elsewhere in the country.
In 1968, Chicago police responded to protesters with violence at the Democratic National Convention. That was also the year that more than 700 students were arrested and 140 were injured at a SDS rally at Columbia University. The Kent State shootings would occur in May, 1970.
Mr. Fodor said that surveillance of the Toledo branches of activist groups was warranted, saying members of his unit believed those being watched were working against the United States and could destabilize Toledo. "They were against everything that society was in favor of. They didn't trust law enforcement, didn't believe they had a fair shake at anything, didn't like seeing their friends arrested."
Sgt. Joe Heffernan, current Toledo police spokesman, was unaware of the intelligence unit's surveillance of political activities and the existence of the unit's files. He declined to comment on the intelligence documents specifically but said the department only collects information on criminal organizations and activities. Plotting to overthrow the government, for example, would be considered treason and deemed illegal, he said.
"Today, if al-Qaeda was holding a meeting in Toledo, that's obviously a political group with criminal connections, so we'd do intelligence," he said.
But the contents of the intelligence files and recollections of the individuals surveilled do not contain evidence that SDS was engaged in criminal activities. Gary Daniels, spokesman for ACLU Ohio, emphasized that in the absence of treason or violence, groups such as SDS remained within the limits of the law.
SDS did have one incident in Toledo, on May 7, 1969, the day after the meeting in the library. Three hundred members and supporters of SDS held an unauthorized rally at UT, and when a band began playing in a nearby building, the five keynote speakers brought out microphones. That violated UT regulations prohibiting sound systems at unregistered gatherings, and four students were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.
Yet the charges were dropped the following day, and UT's dean of student services at the time, Lancelot Thompson, described the rally as a "minimal provocation." It was the only instance in which SDS members were arrested for their activities with the group.
A student's view
One of those arrested was David Reaven, then a freshman at UT. He remembers the organization as harmless, focused on teach-ins, distributing leaflets, fund-raising, and reaching out to other liberal activists. He said he was unaware of police surveillance of his activities, but the intelligence unit had its eye on him. Reports on meetings regularly note his attendance, and on two grainy, black-and-white photographs, his name is written in stark red pencil and underlined, with an arrow pointing to a clean cut and bespectacled young man.
"I'm shocked, really, that they were watching us. We were really very small at the time, maybe only five or 10 regular members," said Mr. Reaven, now a computer analyst living in California. "But maybe I shouldn't be surprised. There was a lot of that happening at the time."
The most extensive of those surveillance programs -- and the most notorious -- was the FBI's COINTELPRO, short for Counter Intelligence Program. Active from 1956 until it was exposed by the media in 1971, COINTELPRO illegally infiltrated organizations it deemed subversive, incited violence, and used entrapment to arrest activists. Toledo's intelligence unit focused on the same groups and corresponded with federal law enforcement agencies, but it did not engage in incitement or entrapment, according to Mr. Fodor and documents in the archives.
Juxtaposed with the FBI's activities then -- and with concerns today over wiretapping and privacy violations -- the intelligence unit's were "rather quaint," Mr. Daniels of the ACLU said.
Margaret Danziger, deputy director of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, said meetings such as the one Officer Carr observed in the library -- free, open to all, and in a reserved room -- are public information.
"If people sign up to meet in the library, if you were to call and ask who's meeting, we would tell you," Ms. Danziger said.
And Mr. Daniels confirmed that such intelligence gathering was legal, although it raises questions of freedom of speech and assembly.
"This theme winds through much of Fourth Amendment law," Mr. Daniels explained, referring to the constitutional amendment that prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and is often cited in privacy cases.
"There's the saying that your house is your castle, so the Fourth Amendment is strongest in your home. But once you step outside the front door, you're in public. In your car or on the street corner, anybody can see you, so the police say, 'Why can't we surveil you?' "
And they did, for more than a decade. Now, the products of that surveillance sit in a cardboard box in a closet at the new Toledo Police Museum.
Affixed to the box is a handwritten note, with a message that applies to both the files and the memory of this chapter of Toledo history: "keep!"
Contact Jessica Shor at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6516.