It was at the urging of a friend over drinks at a U Street bar when Lacy MacAuley first checked out the Twitter account @snufftastic, the wry musings of someone describing herself as a motorcycle enthusiast who lives in the District and happens to be a cop.
MacAuley, who works for an advocacy group, said she immediately recognized the picture attached to the cryptic user name as a woman with spiked hair who called herself Missy and for years had taken part in protests around Washington on issues as varied as a proposed oil pipeline and abusive labor conditions.
“Missy,” according to a lawsuit filed this week in D.C. Superior Court, is an undercover police officer who illegally infiltrated a student group that stages demonstrations at stores where products produced in sweatshops are sold.
The lawsuit offers no concrete evidence that the officer did not attend the demonstrations on her own time as a protester. But to leaders of some of the District’s many protest groups, the allegations offer proof of a long and deeply held suspicion: that police are running a domestic spying operation a decade after a law took effect restricting such activities. Advocates fear authorities are violating their free speech and assembly rights by collecting intelligence under the false guise of maintaining public order.
“These are nonviolent, civil-disobedience protests,” said MacAuley, a spokeswoman for the Institute for Policy Studies, an advocacy group that has joined the anti-sweatshop protesters at demonstrations. “I believe the police spy on us to chill dissent.”
The D.C. attorney general’s office, which defends the city in civil litigation, declined to comment on the case, saying the city had not yet been served with the lawsuit.
“I feel confident that we have adhered to all laws pertaining to the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said in a brief statement.
In its lawsuit filed Monday, United Students Against Sweatshops identified the undercover officer as Nicole Rizzi. The group also included pictures, videos and tweets described as coming from Rizzi’s now-deleted Internet accounts. The suit alleges that @snufftastic on Twitter was Rizzi.
It also does not seek damages but asks for a judgment barring police from continuing to infiltrate the group. It names the mayor, attorney general and Rizzi as defendants. The officer could not be reached for comment; payroll records show she joined the force in 2003.
Rizzi apparently posted voluminously on blogs and in other social media, according to some examples cited in the lawsuit and others available online. Most of the messages are personal, but the officer appears to have dropped surprisingly obvious clues to her day job in some of her tweets. She wrote at one point that she had been a police officer for seven years; another time, she urged people to “please bedazzle my uniform.”
The lawsuit alleges that D.C. police assigned Rizzi to “work undercover at protests throughout the District of Columbia,” where she “made herself appear to be one of the protesters by carrying banners, handing out flyers, chanting.”
The D.C. Council passed a law in 2004 after mass arrests in 2000 and 2002 led to civil rights complaints and lawsuits that eventually cost the District more than $21 million. The Partnership for Civil Justice said it uncovered a D.C. officer who lawyers said at the time not only infiltrated a peaceful protest group but urged them to commit violent acts.
D.C. police are now prohibited from infiltrating advocacy groups without top police officials’ permission, which can be granted only as a last resort and with a proven threat of violence. Last year, the District’s auditor criticized police for not complying with the law. Lanier vehemently denied the auditor’s findings.
Jeffrey Light, who represents the anti-sweatshop group, said no arrests were made at any of the protests that Rizzi allegedly attended.
“I cannot think of any legitimate reason for the police to be sending an undercover officer to those,” Light said. “She was handing out fliers, asking to be put on e-mail and asking about future events. If the police wanted to know that, they could’ve checked the Web site. “
MacAuley, whose story about the officer first appeared in the magazine In These Times, said she thinks she first saw Rizzi at protests in 2009. It wasn’t until November when her friends pointed out the officer’s Twitter account and made the connection to the police. MacAuley said she researched the Twitter user name and other social media sites.
“She didn’t make it as hard as she should have,” MacAuley said. “She had been showing up at even small protests that you wouldn’t think anyone had heard about. I had a strange feeling about her, but I didn’t want to get paranoid.”
But when she saw the picture in the bar, she said, “I absolutely know who that is.”
Light said he pulled public payroll records and extensively researched Internet postings and studied video clips of protests. The lawsuit places Rizzi at United Students Against Sweatshops protests on May 11 on Connecticut Avenue and on May 15 in Columbia Heights. A short video filed in court shows a woman the lawsuit identified as Rizzi dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, her hair short and spiked, handing out fliers outside a store in Columbia Heights in June.
Light, whose lawsuit dubs Rizzi an “agent provocateur,” said he found tweets about how she dresses in civilian clothes to “blend in” and about having to work outside on a day when there was also a protest of the Keystone pipeline. Light said protesters marching on one store found doors locked, preventing a sit-in — a secretly planned event for which Rizzi had been provided advanced notice, the attorney said.
Rizzi has posted extensively on the Internet, including two popular blogs — a fan fiction journal for the police show “Rizzoli & Isles” and a blog that recounts personal stories such as working out at the police academy. She has tweeted more than 8,000 times. On July 30, she tweeted, “[expletive} kill me, job. Seriously, This is not worth any amount of money.”
Jennifer Jenkins and Caitlin Dewey contributed to this report.