Minneapolis NAACP sues city over allegations police used social media to surveil leaders

The Minneapolis NAACP has filed a lawsuit against the Minneapolis Police Department and the City of Minneapolis over allegations that MPD officers used undercover social media accounts to surveil Black civil rights leaders.

The allegations surfaced last April when the Minnesota Department of Human Rights completed its investigation into MPD, which included the finding that "MPD officers use covert social media to target Black leaders, Black organizations, and elected officials without a public safety objective." The investigation resulted in the consent decree between MDHR and the city that was approved by the City Council at the end of March. 


Minneapolis City Council approves police plan after human rights investigation

Changes are coming to the Minneapolis Police Department after the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a settlement agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Now, the NAACP, together with the Racial Justice Law Clinic at the University of Minnesota and the Law Office of Tim Philips, have filed suit against the city based on the finding of the MDHR report, arguing in the complaint that the city violated the rights of NAACP leaders and that both the city and the individual officers involved should pay monetary damages as a result. 

NAACP: MPD ‘tried to bring us harm’

"While the Minneapolis Police Department’s surveillance of our membership is not surprising, it is disappointing. We assumed that our work with MPD on public safety and community matters was being done in good faith. Instead, MPD simultaneously tried to bring us harm. To know MPD surveilled our members is deeply unnerving and upsetting," Cynthia Wilson, President of the Minneapolis NAACP, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. 

Liliana Zaragoza, Associate Professor of Clinical Law at the University of Minnesota and Director of the Racial Justice Law Clinic said MPD had signaled out NAACP members because of their race and their advocacy on behalf of the Black Community. 

"This conduct is not only unconstitutional but also eerily reminiscent of past efforts across the country to surveil Black activists and organizations, from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter," she said.

The city issued the following statement in response to the lawsuit: 

"The City has not yet been served but is reviewing a copy of the lawsuit. It appears that Plaintiff’s Complaint relies on MDHR’s April 2022 findings report. It is important to note that MDHR’s settlement agreement FAQ page, updated on March 31, 2023, clarifies "What was meant by ‘surveillance’ in the MDHR findings report was that MPD officers used covert social media accounts to ‘follow’ and ‘engage with’ individuals and groups through their social media accounts." The FAQ also acknowledges that "It is common practice for law enforcement agencies to ‘follow’ and ‘engage with’ individuals and groups through their social media accounts to establish a credible undercover social media profile." In response to MDHR’s findings, the City has previously stated it does not agree that MPD was using covert social media accounts (or "undercover social media accounts") to spy on Black people, Black organizations or elected officials."

The discovery phase 

The MDHR report findings in regard to the use of undercover social media accounts to monitor Black activists were a source of contention in the settlement negotiations between the city and MDHR, which resulted in the consent decree approved by the City Council at the end of March. 

According to the Star Tribune, in June of 2022, Assistant City Attorney Sara J. Lathrop wrote MDHR a letter asking the agency to provide evidence of the findings so negotiations could continue. "Statements of needed change and increased accountability cannot create the lasting change our residents deserve and demand. We need specifics," she wrote.  

At the time, MDHR Commissioner Rebecca Lucero declined to provide the city with more specifics, with agency staff citing the confidentially of the agency's sources during their investigation. 

Zaragoza noted that if the lawsuit proceeds to the discovery phase, the plaintiffs may be able to obtain any records the city has kept documenting how MPD used covert social media to target NAACP remembers. "We don't know if it was just a handful of members or if it was over the course of a decade. Was it dozens of members? Who exactly?" she told FOX 9. 

Another, related issue, that Zaragoza believes may be revealed through discovery — did undercover MPD officers try to influence the public debate or the NAACP as an organization? 

"MPD officers using social media accounts could have not only been trying to influence the public, public perception, public policy, public views, but also very much the NAACP and what it was advocating on," she said. 

The consent decree agreed between the city and MDHR contained a section on the use of undercover social media accounts. The city agreed that MPD would require, "authorization for the use of undercover social media accounts," and that their use would be reviewed periodically by supervisors and the MPD’s Review Panel.