Georgia claims police aren’t using Signal to message ‘Cop City’ despite evidence to the contrary

Georgia’s deputy attorney general said in court that he didn’t think police in the state used Signal to communicate about the law enforcement training center colloquially known as “Cop City” — despite saying so in a motion by lawyers had obtained evidence from The Guardian from law enforcement leadership last year directed officers to download the encrypted phone app for that purpose.

Defense attorneys have been seeking signal messages from the Atlanta Police Department and other law enforcement agencies that could be relevant to their clients’ cases since February, from Deputy Attorney General John Fowler, according to their March 15 motion.

Fowler did not respond and only indicated “that the Signal messages were not in the possession of the state,” the motion said. He repeated that claim in court this week, saying he believed only federal agencies working with prosecutors in Georgia were using Signal.

It is unclear whether the official is not telling the truth or is ignorant of the arresting authorities in his office’s attempt to prosecute 61 people linked to the opposition to Cop City.

“We cannot comment due to ongoing prosecution,” attorney general spokesperson Kara Murray wrote in response to questions from the Guardian.

Related: Exclusive: Groups call for US investigation into police killing of ‘Cop City’ protester

The revelation came during a Supreme Court conference in Fulton County, where prosecutors and defense attorneys had to explain details of the state’s ongoing Rico (or criminal conspiracy) case targeting Cop City. It is the largest Rico case ever related to a protest movement, experts tell The Guardian.

The battle against Cop City has made national and global headlines, especially since January 18 last year, when state forces shot and killed Manuel Paez Terán, known as ‘Tortuguita’, who was camping in protest in a public park near the site from Cop City. – the first such incident in American history. Opposition to the project has come from a wide range of local and national supporters, with concerns including unchecked militarization of police and clearing of forests in an era of climate crisis. Atlanta police say the center is needed for “world-class” training.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams said Tuesday that she plans to start trial in the Rico case before the end of the year, with five defendants at a time. Her job in court included making sure the state releases its evidence as quickly as possible to the dozens of attorneys involved in the case — after the state announced in November that it had five terabytes of evidence data, the equivalent of approximately 400 million pages of text. or 800,000 digital photos. On Tuesday, the state said it may have up to a terabyte more of data.

At one point, Judge Adams seemed to lose patience with the state, saying, “You’ve all indicted 61 people, so you don’t have to come and tell me you’re having trouble getting evidence” — and gave until May 17 the time to have the state archive all discovery materials.

That data should include Signal messages, attorney David Gastley argued in his March 15 motion and again in court Tuesday. He cited the Guardian’s December 4, 2023 reporting as the key piece of evidence supporting the request. Based on emails obtained through open records requests, that story identified how top police officials in Atlanta began setting up Signal groups in early 2023 to discuss Cop City.

In an email detailed in the Guardian’s reporting, Major Jessica Bruce of the Atlanta Police Department informed a dozen agencies on Jan. 23: “As we get closer to the Academy building [sic] I want to keep everyone informed in a timely manner” – and that she would add anyone who receives the email to a Signal group. The ‘Academy’ is Cop City.

Related: Georgia uses ‘political fear mongering’ in attempts to charge Cop City protesters

That email was sent to police departments in Atlanta and in Cobb and DeKalb counties — part of the Atlanta metro area — as well as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and the ATF. The Norfolk Southern Railway police were also copied.

Gastley, in a Feb. 13 email to the attorney general’s office, asked for “preservation and production” of “[a]ll messages related to the investigation and prosecution ‘Stop Cop City’/’Defend the Atlanta Forest’ exchanged by law enforcement on…encrypted messaging apps such as Signal and WhatsApp.”

He named all police officials and agencies mentioned in the Guardian’s reporting and asked for communication between them. He also asked for any communication regarding the decision to use the app, and any policies governing its use.

“It is unlikely that relevant witness statements were not included in these large-scale, inter-agency Signal Group threads intended to communicate about the Cop City protests,” the March 15 motion reads.

Despite five emails and an in-person visit, the lawyer alleges, Fowler did not respond — other than to say he believed the state had no such messages but was “willing to consider complying with the request,” the motion said.

The lawyer summarizes these events in the motion, raising the possibility that messages were deleted: “[C]Communication with the Public Prosecution Service shows that no careful investigation was carried out to determine the extent of the discoverable material in the tranche of law enforcement signal messages (insofar as these messages have not been deleted).

Signal allows users to set the app to automatically delete messages, after which they are no longer even available for retrieval on computer servers, like standard texts. First Amendment and digital transparency experts told the Guardian in December that police or other government officials using encrypted apps like Signal to communicate on official business raise serious concerns about the ability to access information after the fact, in accordance with the “freedom of information” and open documents. laws – and now possibly in response to discovery requests in state prosecutions.

The attorney’s motion also notes in a footnote how the state’s 109-page Rico complaint references activists’ use of Signal against Cop City. Their “communications are often shrouded in secrecy, using sophisticated technology designed to prevent law enforcement from viewing their communications and preventing the recovery of the information,” the complaint reads.

“In the indictment in this case, the State itself has chosen to include the use of the Signal messaging platform as allegedly incriminating evidence against the defendants’ so-called ‘enterprise’,” the motion reads. “The extent to which law enforcement themselves deliberately moved their own communications to this same platform will certainly be relevant evidence to the jury… especially if a significant amount of law enforcement material has not in fact been preserved.”

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