Police Surveillance is Criminalization and It Crushes People

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Bottom of the BlueLeaks Iceberg is an Archive of Mass Supervision

The media called Jesse Harvey a “recovery advocate.” To others, he was “Narcan Jesus.”

In 2016, Harvey founded Journey House Recovery, a non-profit that today operates four low barrier, peer-run recovery houses in Southern and Central Maine. In 2018, Harvey formed Church of Safe Injection because “other churches…aren’t interested in helping people who use drugs.” The church is a workaround and a protest. It is an attempt to find loophole to distribute clean hypodermic needles and naloxone, the medication used to counteract opioid overdoses. It’s also a political challenge to the criminalization of the opioid epidemic. Now with five branches in as many states, its success is further support for what the approximately 120 supervised injections sites operating across the world have already proven: harm reduction works.

To the police in Lewiston, Maine, however, the matter is different. Harvey was a person of interest.

Three different Lewiston Police Department Bulletins issued between May 29 and June 5, 2020 include a description of Harvey in the “Officer Safety & Awareness” section. The bulletin alerted officers to Harvey’s work “distributing hypodermic needles throughout Lewiston’s downtown.” They noted that “HARVEY is NOT  affiliated with a needle exchange organization and therefore, it is not legal for HARVEY to be handing needles out.” They cited his previous criminal history and instruct officers who may have encountered him to “remind him of the Governor’s stay-at-home order and summons him (if he is in possession of needles).”

Harvey died in early September in what police called a possible overdose. A tribute published in Mainer explained the circumstances leading to his death: constant policing monitoring that disrupted his harm reduction work, relapses and continuing struggles with substance use, legal troubles and stigmatizing press coverage, compounded, at the end, by the isolation and stress of the pandemic. Friends and colleagues concluded that “relentless police surveillance and harassment helped push Harvey over the edge.” A decent society would have supported Harvey’s initiative and leadership in response to a public health crisis. Instead, his calling was criminalized and he became another causality of the war on drugs.

The police bulletins that mention Harvey are not just testaments to the ratcheting police pressure on Harvey during his final days. They’re also artifacts of mass criminalization, the “governing through crime” that downplays the social dynamics of harms—interpersonal violence, addiction, homelessness —and makes it all a matters for the cops and courts. Harvey’s public profile and harm reduction work makes it easier to appreciate the way routine police paper pushing is actually highly subjective and a political process of administering poverty and managing related social problems. Police surveillance criminalizes survival and it crushes people.

The Lewiston Police Department Bulletins that targeted Harvey entered the public record on Juneteenth, when Distributed Denial of Secrets published BlueLeaks, 269 gigabytes of police records hacked from 251 websites. While the Lewiston Police Department was not hacked, many of their documents were included along with files of the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC), an interagency intelligence hub managed by the Maine State Police and one of the 79 “fusion centers” recognized by the Department of Homeland Security. BlueLeaks has broken faster and gone further in Maine because of a federal whistleblower suit that focused the attention of legislators and the media on the MIAC in May 2020.

Nationally, BlueLeaks is still a developing story. Initial reports covered the extent and consequences of the data breach, document the surveillance of George Floyd protests, detail some of the surveillance technologies used to monitor demonstrations, and criticized the role of intelligence assessments in exaggerating and misinterpreting the danger that the George Floyd protests presented to law enforcement. The reporting on both Maine’s MIAC scandal and Blueleaks, however, have missed the main point communicated by the majority of the documents, the stark reality that is tragically set in relief by Jesse Harvey’s recent death.

Police surveillance and related intelligence systems are echo chambers of wholesale criminalization. We live under mass supervision. It’s not just the MIAC and all the other fusion centers associated with DHS. It’s the intertwined networks of public-private surveillance and intelligence analysis that comprise nerve system of authoritarian statism.

BlueLeaks overwhelms us with the scope and scale of mass criminalization. The example of Jesse Harvey clarifies the true costs and stakes. Police surveillance criminalizes survival. It stands in the way of actually reducing real social harms. Why police addiction? Police surveillance crushes people. In Maine and in harm reduction circles, Jesse Harvey’s story is well and rightfully known. It should help us see tragedy in the other nameless victims of mass criminalization. It provides the moral clarity to filter out the noise from BlueLeaks and finally hear the now-obvious signal.

Police surveillance is criminalization and it crushes people.

The BlueLeaks Iceberg

Evidence of monitoring demonstrations, unhinged intelligence assessments, and other reports with clear “newsworthiness” are the tip of the BlueLeaks iceberg. A massive paper trail detailing the routine work of “criminal intelligence” lurks below the surface, an endless churn of documents titled: Situational Awareness, Attempt to Identify, Attempt to Locate, Request for Information, BOLO—Be On the Look Out For, Officer Safety, Wanted, Missing.

These documents are testaments to the work of monitoring and managing the massive swaths of the US population caught up in the criminal legal system. This criminalized population extends far beyond the 1.4 million caged in prisons or the 600,000 locked away in county jails on any given day. It spirals out to 4.5 million people on probation and parole, the 12 million more that spend some time in a county jail each year, and nearly 20 million people estimated to have a felony conviction. Two thirds of this criminalized mass of people are poor and one third is black. An even larger group, 100 million, has some kind criminal record, which, as a result of electronic background checks and reporting requirements on applications, leads to systemic discrimination in housing, employment, and education. Altogether, one third of adults in the United States are entangled in criminal legal system in some way.

The overwhelming criminalization that defines the US is often thought in terms of “mass incarceration.”

Pointing to the United States world-leading prison population, activists and scholars have long recognized and denounced mass incarceration as political strategy to manage problem populations: the poor, racial, religious and sexual minorities, formerly incarcerated, and otherwise criminalized people.

As I argue elsewhere, the dynamics of criminalization are changing. “Mass supervision”— the complementary set of arrangements developed to manage “problem populations” outside of the prison—developed in relation to mass incarceration and has become more prominent in the last decade. The growing salience of mass supervision is part of a larger reconfiguration: a punitive decarceration that reduces prisons populations—down nine percent from some 1.6 million in 2010 to 1.4 million in 2018—without challenging the criminalization of social problems that has made the United States into the global leader in imprisonment.

The majority of Blueleaks documents—which at first glance may appear too routine to be relevant—should be understood as an archive of mass supervision. It’s a dispiriting account of the punitive regulation of social problems, countless untold tragedies of structural victimization and interpersonal harm: homelessness, addiction, mental illness, trauma, abuse, and harm.

Jesse Harvey and the Church of Safe Injection sit at the waterline of the BlueLeaks iceberg, in between the scandalous stuff of headlines and the seemingly unremarkable mass of routine “criminal intelligence.” Questions of addiction and drug abuse bring criminalization into clear focus because the legal status of drug use is politically contested. There is an active movement for decriminalization.

In Maine, for example, the Church of Safe Injection is part of a larger effort that includes legislative proposals and direct action. In the past two years, state legislators have proposed legalizing supervised injection, along with a series of other bills to reduce criminalization. While none of these bills has passed, the issues have not gone away. For over two weeks in late July in early August, unsheltered people encamped in front of City Hall in Portland, Maine demanding defunding the police, investment in social services (including plans for housing), an eviction freeze, the decriminalization of sleeping outside….and the opening of an “overdose prevention” facility.

To the police, however, the matter is clear: possessing more than 10 hypodermic needles is a crime and Jesse Harvey was a known offender. It begs the question: in the thousands of other law enforcement documents contained in the BlueLeaks archive, what else has been left out?

An Archive of Mass Supervision

BlueLeaks provides the necessary material to conduct an independent audit of the MIAC intelligence products. While four “Civil Unrest Reports” compiling information on the George Floyd demonstrations have dominated coverage of BlueLeaks in Maine media, other documents show broader focus: the main concern of MIAC intelligence is criminal matters—often minor issues like drug crimes and property theft.

All told, Blueleaks flooded the public record with 2961 documents hacked from the MIAC website, the earliest from 2016 the most recent dated June 2020. There are 1384 documents either produced by Maine’s fusion center or labeled “pass through,” meaning that the MIAC shared the item with at least some of their 4,526 registered users. At least 78 documents are included twice, 13 documents are announcements that either promote the capabilities of Maine’s fusion center or announce trainings and other professional development opportunities for police and other intelligence professionals, and another 1,501 documents were produced by other local, state, federal, and private units but were not labeled “pass through,” meaning other agencies shared with the documents with Maine’s fusion center but the MAIC did not necessarily disseminate them to any of its partners.

Two-thirds of the documents definitely shared with MIAC—939 of 1,382—are (1) requests to identify a suspect or a wanted person, locate a person of interest or missing person, or provide information about possible crime or suspicious circumstances or (2) bulletins and reports on specific incidents, cases, or individuals considered relevant to law enforcement but not directly connected to a criminal investigation by a law enforcement agency in Maine. Add in the 147 cancellations and updates that follow up on requests for information and similar notices sent out by MIAC and nearly 80 percent of the documents created or shared by the MIAC concern the sharing of criminal information.

These documents are snapshots of mass supervision. Individually, each one is a fragment of a larger, incomplete story. Together, they reveal a coherent pattern: the punitive regulation of social problems through policing and surveillance. Some examples:

A 2016 BOLO from the Maine Department of Corrections “passed through” by the MIAC instructs law enforcement to “be on the lookout” for a “wanted juvenile” who left a group home run by a private, for-profit service provider for people with “mental illness and/ or intellectual disabilities.” The document explains that the juvenile was “convicted of Assault and was committed to Long Creek Youth Development Center” before being sent to the group home as part of release planning. The document instructs officers that the individuals is to be reincarcerated at Long Creek upon apprehension. Two years later, the individual, no longer a juvenile, was arrested and charged in a murder case in neighboring state.

A 2018 officer safety bulletin warns that a “Transient Maine (ME) resident with history of mental health issues as well as violent and threatening behavior makes threat to southern ME law enforcement officers; may pose risk to greater law enforcement community.” The document notes that the individual “has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and manic depression,” has not consistently taken their medication and has history of “suicidal ideation” and “crisis evaluations and psychiatric hospitalization.”

Another officer safety bulletin, also from 2018, alerts officers to an “Armed…Maine (ME) resident living in the woods…reportedly suffering from mental health issues.” The document explains that family members suspect that the individual suffers from Huntington Disease. Two members of the individual’s immediate family had already passed from the progressive and fatal genetic brain disorder that impairs the ability to reason, walk, and speak.

A 2019 “Information Alert” from the Auburn Police Department “passed through” by the MIAC details the situation of a “couch-surfing transient” with “several mental health issues (including his own claims of being bi-polar) and is off his medication(s).” The report notes that the individual “has manic episodes / active periods for law enforcement involvements and is easily angered / prone to enraged outbursts”  and “may not sleep for long periods of time. Now being homeless, [the individual] may spend a lot of his time driving around.”

A 2019 “Attempt to Locate” requests “assistance in locating a dangerous suspect involved in multiple criminal violations.” The individual violated a protection from abuse order. The document notes that the individual is a known runner from police and has made numerous suicide by cop statements to family and friends and that he would not be ‘taken alive.’” Despite this intelligence, the Maine State Police sent their tactical team to bring the individual into custody in a 2 AM raid on the home of the suspect’s mother. In the subsequent confrontation, the individual shot himself in the head.

These reports sit beside countless other, similar documents—many less detailed or pertaining more or less sympathetic offenders. They also join another collection of documents concerning property crime: requests to identify or locate suspects or otherwise provide information about reported property crimes. These reports often note histories of drug use and previous arrests of suspected and wanted individuals.

These documents were shared to different selections of the MIAC’s registered users, a group that mostly consists of police and intelligence officials from all levels of government and the private sector but also includes school superintendents and school resource officers, university administrators and public safety officers, harbor masters, and analysts and administrators public health and emergency services, among various others. The MIAC, like other fusion centers, will tailor their distribution by issue. Some reports go only to law enforcement (and sometimes only in certain regions), others to different sectors, such as education or operators of critical infrastructure.

What police and other intelligence and security professionals understand as an uncomplicated act of information sharing appears, from a different perspective, as the quotidian acts of administration that comprise a system of mass criminalization: the social construction of various harms as crime or disorder that portends future crimes. No doubt, all of these examples involve either interpersonal or self-harm. They detail real suffering but they do so in way that individualizes the problem as criminal stigma. They reinforce the idea that “criminal” behavior is an uncomplicated “choice.”

As with the reports Lewiston Police Department bulletins on Jesse Harvey, these documents exclude the important context. The political choices and social circumstances that are also entailed in the rise of mass incarceration and supervision—the criminalization of drug use, the closure of mental asylums and the failure to create community-based alternatives, the continuing commodification of basic needs like healthcare and housing, the relentless of grind of daily life in a social order defined by grotesque inequalities of all kinds—are not included in the neat narratives of police documents.

Social problems are translated into moral failings of weak or depraved individuals (criminals) or, at best, unfortunate tragedies (victims). Structural violence—the institutionalized violence of the present order that harms people by denying and restricting access to basic needs—cannot be countenanced.

“…heroin and opioids present the most significant near term drug threat to public health and public safety.”

To reformers within the fusion center community, the sharing of criminal intelligence information is minimum mission: “fusion centers should be more than just information exchange brokers.” Intelligence is not just “connecting the dots.” It involves analysis to provide executives and other decision makers the context and perspective necessary to lead. What intelligence does the MIAC produce and/or disseminate? There are 283 documents either produced or clearly disseminated by the MIAC that move beyond information brokerage and meet higher standard of “intelligence.”

The most detailed intelligence reports produced by the MIAC have a clear focus: drugs. The 2018 Official State of Maine Threat Assessment finds “no specific, credible intelligence to indicate a terrorist threat to the state of Maine” and concludes “that heroin and opioids present the most significant near term drug threat to public health and public safety.”

This finding is reflected in the focus of other MIAC intelligence reports. The most extensive intelligence report regularly produced by the MIAC is the “Maine Drug Monitoring Initiative,” a project which seeks to “establish a multi-jurisdictional, drug-incident information sharing environment through the collection and analysis of drug seizures, overdoses, related criminal behavior, and healthcare related services with a specific emphasis on heroin and opioids.” The reports provide strategic intelligence. It does “not to provide analysis or dissemination of real time or time sensitive drug intelligence that may require an actionable response.” Instead, they usually begin by highlighting one specific item related drug markets or drug trafficking like “Counterfeit Oxycodone Pills Containing Fentanyl” or “Cocaine Concealed in Tylenol Capsules,” before listing suspected overdoes and naloxone administrations and out of state arrests of Maine residents. The reports end with a list of attached bulletins from other police intelligence operations concerning drugs.

Under the present order of things where opioid use and addiction are criminalized, “Maine Drug Monitoring Initiative” has some intelligence value to law enforcement. It provides information on issues in trends related to drug use and overdose and drug market dynamics. In contrast, the 16 “Opioid Arrest Bulletins” also disclosed through BlueLeaks are examples of gratuitous criminalization. These monthly reports list everyone arrested for opioid trafficking. They include names and addresses but never any intelligence information that connects the arrested people to ongoing investigations. Moreover, some of the individuals shamed and stigmatized in these “intelligence” reports may not have not been charged with criminal offenses if a proposed bill to reform Maine’s harsh sentencing laws had passed.

The other major intelligence product produced by the MIAC is the COVID Daily Update. There are 100 of these reports—35 percent of more 283 analytic products included the MIAC’s contribution to BlueLeaks. These reports provide updates on the cumulative case data for Maine and end with list of attached orders and proclamations from Maine state government, other reports from federal agencies, and other COVID-related intelligence assessments from other police intelligence centers.

The rest of the documents produced by the MIAC mostly concern protest and political violence, what intelligence reports deem “extremism” or terrorism. While four “Civil Unrest Reports” compiling information on the George Floyd demonstrations have dominated coverage of blueleaks in Maine media, other documents show broader focus. Eleven situational awareness reports produced or disseminated by the MIAC broke from the focus on criminal matters. Four reports profile known “sovereign citizens.” One document details an impersonator trying access government facilities. Another discusses opposition to the Central Maine Power Corridor, a controversial project to build 145-mile transmission line through the heart of Maine to send hydropower from Quebec to electricity customers in Massachusetts. Another report, intended for “intended to inform University and College officials” bundles reports from other fusion centers on “violent extremist groups” and “college protests.” A March 2018 spreadsheet, titled “possible protests in Maine,” provides list 17 protests throughout the state, mostly like the March for Lives demonstrations that followed the February 2018 School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Two documents relay information on the release of individual in Maine who had been previously incarcerated for making false statements in a terrorism case which involved an informant. A joint report produced by the MIAC and the Boston division of the FBI details “uncorroborated reports indicated members of the Somali refugee community in Lewiston, ME were attempting to recruit Somalis residing out-of-state to travel to Lewiston for the purpose of fighting with ‘white people.’”

The MIAC also “passed through” 131 intelligence assessments from other agencies on a variety of topics: outlaw motorcycle gangs, “extremists” of various stripes, mass shooting events, cybersecurity threats and best practices and, of course, drugs. These reports, as Maine State Police Major Christopher Grotton, who previously ran the MIAC and now oversees administrative functions at the center, explained in email, have “contextual relevance to one or more other agencies and we are simply passing that product along without additional analysis – because the information is sufficient on it’s [sic] own.”

All told, the MIAC’s intelligence reporting is preoccupied with drug use and addiction, an issue that many in the state are fighting to de-criminalize. Remove the COVID reports and the announcements from consideration, and over one third of the intelligence reports produced or otherwise disseminated by the MIAC concern drugs.

Mass Supervision Could Sink Efforts to Defund the Police

The bottom of the BlueLeaks iceberg is important not just because it is difficult to see and appreciate it. It also dangerous. It threatens to sink the efforts to defund the police and prevent the campaign from arriving at its intended destination: the abolition of police, prisons, and the mass criminalization that animates authoritarian statism.

Defunding the police is an effort to end policing and not just the police. This is to say that it is the opening gambit of an abolitionist project to stop mass criminalization and reconstruct social order around meeting human needs, not securing the conditions of capital accumulation. In other words, defunding the police does not mean shifting resources from the armed, uniformed police and toward the soft social police—probation, social workers, and other “helping professions.” As acclaimed abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said, “Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything.”

The establishment response to defund the police is to narrow this revolutionary project of social transformation into another package of conventional reforms: not defund but reimagine, reinvent, and reform policing. As I wrote elsewhere, the contours of co-optation are already clear: collapse demands to defund the police into the austerity of the COVID depression, chip away at proposals for structural change until they are palatable to the status quo, and hasten the on-going transformation of mass incarceration into mass supervision. Indeed, e-carceration, the use of surveillance technology to incarcerate people in their own homes, is rapidly expanding. In 2005, 53,000 people were shackled by the digital chains of electronic monitoring. In 2015, the number more than doubled to 125,000. Those same years saw the rapid expansion of police intelligence systems, which, as the BlueLeaks documents show, are the nerve system of the authoritarian statism, the information processing systems that fill the gaps between different pieces of the criminal legal and security-intelligence systems and the wider state apparatus.

Importantly, mass supervision is not just a matter of fusion centers. The bottom of the blueleaks iceberg also includes documents from private surveillance projects, like the organized retail crime alliances, private associations of corporate retailers that share intelligence and cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute property crimes. The records of the New England Organized Retail Crime Alliance are also included in BlueLeaks. These documents include four reports form the Maine Information and Analysis Center, all requests to identify shoplifters.

Organized retail crime alliances join a series of other public-private partnerships for surveillance, such as the Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) that bring together different corporations by sector to “protect their facilities, personnel and customers from cyber and physical security threats and other hazards. ISACs collect, analyze and disseminate actionable threat information to their members and provide members with tools to mitigate risks and enhance resiliency.”

While it is possible that Maine could shut down its fusion center, it also possible that existing or yet to be formed private and public-private entities could pick up the slack. Closing a single—or even all fusion centers—would not stop the use of intelligence fusion for the purposes of mass criminalization and supervision. Fusion centers should be dismantled. In the words of Angela Davis, however, such an effort is only the “negative task of abolition.” What “about building up, creating new institutions”? Ending the harms of police surveillance requires more than shutting down police intelligence centers. It demands a positive project to interrupt criminalization and developing new institutions to transform the harms of drug use and addiction, homelessness, interpersonal conflict and abuse, and all the other social problems currently managed through the violence of police and security.

How to avoid an iceberg? When ship pilots navigate leads, fractures in the sea ice, they proceed slowly and use radar to help detect icebergs or follow the lead of ice breaker. We may not have the luxury of slow, careful action. What is our icebreaker? The combined effects of COVID and the George Floyd protests have opened political possibilities no one could have foreseen. Can the varied local struggles that are moving into these “leads” further “break the ice”? Doing so will requiring challenging mass supervision with the same intensity and clarity as previous demonstrations and campaigns against police violence and mass incarceration.

Some of this work is already happening. The 8 to Abolition demands include a number of points that specifically target mass supervision, including the call to “dismantle fusion centers, county crime analysis centers, real time crime centers, gun and gang violence intelligence centers, and purge the attendant databases.” Moreover, the George Floyd protests advanced the pre-existing campaigns to ban facial recognition surveillance, leading to major victories in Boston, the second largest city to ban the surveillance practice, and Portland, ME, the first city outside of Massachusetts or California to ban face surveillance.

But much work remains to be done. Harm reduction advocates and other activists and abolitionist will continue the work for which Jesse Harvey will be remembered. In the terms of Angela Davis, there is a robust abolitionist strategy for dealing with the harms of addiction, a negative projection of de-criminalization and positive project of harm reduction and voluntary treatment (and, in Portugal, there is an impressive proof-of-concept). The political challenges are immense but the vision is clear.

When it comes to harms of surveillance, however, the matter is murky. Of course, ban and rollback harmful surveillance technologies but what’s next? Is there a positive project of surveillance abolition? Regulation—the creation of specialized surveillance bureaucracies—is fraught, an improvement (perhaps?) but hardly abolition. Part of the problem is that the harms of surveillance are much more diffuse. That is because, more than a matter of rights or security, surveillance is about the administration of people and things. It is information processing for the maintenance of social order.

BlueLeaks reveals the operations of a particular kind of apparatus that administers people and things (social problems like “addiction”) through criminalization. How to administer people and things outside of criminalization? This first and obvious question opens to fundamental matters of our rights and responsibilities to others. Is surveillance abolition possible without a fundamental re-conceptualization of political community? Is the positive project of surveillance abolition some form of democratic self-administration? These questions are also, so to speak, “leads” worth following.

In the near term, more protest and uncertainty is assured. Who knows what the election and its aftermath will bring? In the medium term, it is unclear continuing social protest, social movement organizations, and more establishment reformers will interact. Will reform or abolition win out? Will Trump thread the needle and escalate already overt repression? Can we navigate this dangerous new conjuncture and make through to the other side without sinking?

Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and author of Pacifying the Homeland.