Uniformed Cops on BP Payroll? Enter the ACLU

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Some updates on the incident I reported on last week, in which an off-duty Louisiana sheriff’s deputy working for BP’s private security detail harassed an environmental activist who was neither on BP’s property nor breaking any laws. (Watch the video at the end of this post.)

First, some gratifying news: The ACLU has put Louisiana law enforcement on notice. In a letter (PDF) released yesterday, Marjorie Esman, executive director of the group’s Louisiana chapter, reminded the sheriffs of the coastal parishes that “members of the public have the right under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to film, record, photograph, and document anything they observe in a public place. No one—neither law enforcement nor a private corporation—has the legal right to interfere with public access to public places or the recording of activities that occur there. Nor may law enforcement officials cooperate with private companies in denying such access to the public.”

Esman told me that the ACLU had discussed the matter due in large part to Mother Jones‘ reporting. She says it would consider filing a lawsuit if appropriate.

Louisiana police don’t have any right to tell you you can’t walk onto a public beach (even to, as Esman puts it, “roll around in sticky gunky tar that I’ll never be able to get off—if I want to, that’s my right”). However, they do have the right to mislead you about who they’re really working for. In Louisiana, as in many places, it’s legal for police officers to wear their uniforms regardless of whether they’re acting in an official capacity or working for a private corporation. Which is why Andrew Wheelan, the environmentalist mentioned above, was unaware that the cop who pressured him to stop filming a BP building and later pulled him over so that a BP official could question him wasn’t on duty at the time. The Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office told me that the deputy who pulled Wheelan over is just one of 40 in the parish who are working for BP on their own time. And the BP-police collusion goes beyond uniformed deputies moonlighting. In nearby Lafourche Parish, for example, the sheriff’s office is filling 57 security positions a week for BP; the shifts are on the clock, and BP reimburses the sheriff’s office for them.

There’s been a lot of to-do about the federal government being officially in charge of all things oil-spill related, and Mother Jones ruffled some feathers by quoting a BP rep who said the company had a lot of sway over local sheriff’s departments. But there you have it, plain as day: Down here, many cops do literally work for BP.

Seem like a conflict of interest, or even sort of scary? Perhaps. But, as Esman points out, it’s perfectly legal. “BP doesn’t have the right to just decide they’re going to take over a public street,” she says. “They do not have the authority to tell people they can’t document what they see. But they do have the right to hire these deputies. There’s nothing we can do about that.”

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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