Despite public assertions that it had gone dormant, a multi-agency task force consisting of federal, state, and local police that was created to monitor protests in Minnesota during the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin continued to operate in secret after the trial’s conclusion, according to emails and documents examined by MIT Technology Review. The program, known as Operation Safety Net (OSN), held regular meetings, conducted policing operations, continued close coordination, and updated intelligence documents until at least October 2021, far past its publicly announced “demobilization” in April 2021.

OSN was created to provide security during Chauvin’s trial, but quickly expanded beyond its announced scope. When an officer from nearby Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, shot and killed Daunte Wright just a few days before the Chauvin verdict, OSN descended upon the protests that erupted in the Minneapolis suburb. It continued to operate there and throughout the region throughout 2021. Although OSN is based in Minnesota, it has far-reaching implications as to the ways technology can be leveraged to de-anonymize protestors, track journalists, and monitor activists. 

Our investigation shows that the joint command structure spanning 11 state, local, and federal agencies oversaw an immensely powerful surveillance machine, rendering anonymous protest—which the US Supreme Court has upheld as a core tenant of free speech—much more difficult. Furthermore, when asked about whether OSN was ongoing, both internal communications and statements made to MIT Technology Review asserted that the operation “did not exist” despite evidence that it did. 

string of contradictions

Public statements from officials during press conferences and local news reports created the impression that OSN went into a dormant phase the same week as Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict, though the door was left open to renewing the effort later. On April 22, OSN tweeted “Update: We are in Phase four of OSN. This includes scaling back on resources with the ability to quickly increase them if needed.” The group has not posted on social media or held a press conference since that time. 

Officials said that the operation would shut down in late April 2021, with the exception of some planning meetings for future trials. However, emails from July 2021 through November 2021 obtained through a public records request to the City of Minneapolis show that OSN remained active and, without public acknowledgement, issued directives on how to handle protests that had nothing to do with the murder of George Floyd or the trials of the officers involved. In October 2021, the Minneapolis Police Department responded to protests in the city’s Uptown neighborhood following the killing of Winston Smith by law enforcement officers. Internal planning documents titled “Operations Plan/Operation Safety Net” explained how officers should go about making arrests, how to book protesters, assigned roles, and laid out other procedures. 

Among those procedures, the documents confirmed what protesters had alleged was a new tactic—arresting demonstrators, refusing to say under what charges, and either dropping them off blocks away or booking them in jail. “The MPD booking team will NOT take an arrestee without a confirmed arresting officer,” the document reads, “who shall later provide a supplement covering the [probable cause] for the arrest.” The plan notes that intelligence will be provided as needed by the MPD Strategic Information Center, a real-time crime center that was essential to OSN.

An operations plan from the Minneapolis Police Department labelled “Operations Safety Net” related to protests in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis in October 2021.

In an email to MIT Technology Review, the Minneapolis Police Department replied “OSN was a planned response to the Chauvin trial. When that trial ended, the operation specific to OSN ended.” Additionally, the department indicated that a joint response between law enforcement agencies is common. “Work continues within an everyday framework that supports mutual aid among agencies.”

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By: Sam Richards, Tate Ryan-Mosley
Title: The secret police: After protests around George Floyd’s murder ended, a police system for watching protesters kept going
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Published Date: Thu, 17 Mar 2022 16:39:56 +0000

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