NY cops seek free hand in spying on political activists

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Dec 3 14:17:23 MST 2002

The Guardian (UK)
November 30, 2002

NYPD Fights Ban Against Spying on Activists

by Oliver Burkeman in New York

The New York police department has launched a courtroom crusade to overturn
a longstanding legal ruling limiting its ability to spy on political

The move raised fears among civil liberties campaigners of a return to the
days when the NYPD's notorious Red Squad infiltrated dissident groups and
collaborated with the McCarthy anti-Communist witchhunts.

The police commissioner Ray Kelly believes the 1985 court ruling restricting
covert action by the NYPD now constitutes an obstacle to fighting terrorism.
"We live in a more dangerous, constantly changing world, one with challenges
and threats that were never envisioned when the ... guidelines were
written," he said in a statement

The Handschu agreement, named after one of a coalition of activists who won
the court ruling, prevents police from monitoring political protests by New
Yorkers, except for the purposes of crowd control, and requires a reasonable
suspicion of criminality before legitimate political organizations can be

It came after decades in which the NYPD routinely compiled thousands of
intelligence files on student leaders and others it considered worryingly
radical, passing information to Congress and the CIA during the 1950s.

In the 1960s, the NYPD's bureau of strategic services, the successor to the
Red Squad, engaged in numerous "black bag jobs" - illegal operations - to
keep tabs on radicals at Columbia university and in the civil rights

The Handschu agreement itself came after a legal battle that started when
members of the Black Panthers were accused of conspiring to blow up several
New York department stores, a police station, a railway and the New York
Botanical Garden.

A jury acquitted them after it emerged that Manhattan's district attorney
had ordered the police to infiltrate the group. What followed looked like
entrapment: one officer, posing as a Panther, provided other group members
with a map and rented car for an armed robbery.

Mr Kelly's proposals, which a judge is expected to consider next month,
would mean that any NYPD unit could investigate any political group with out
suspecting a crime, could videotape or photograph demonstrations, and would
no longer need to convince a three-person panel - two police officials and a
civilian - of the legitimacy of an infiltration.

"Prior to the [Handschu] settlement, the government was collecting dossiers,
infiltrating organizations without any basis [for suspecting] criminal
activity, and even instigating illegal activities themselves," Donna
Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said.

"And when the government engages in this kind of systematic spying ... it
has a chilling effect on people because they are legitimately afraid to say
what they think.

Related court rulings, limiting police spying, have also been weakened or
reversed in other cities including Chicago and San Francisco. But in New
York at least, critics have pointed out, Mr Kelly has not given a single
example of the ruling hampering an inquiry.

"When the government says they're not able to engage in surveillance at a
mosque that's known to support terrorism - well, that's precisely where the
existing guidelines do allow surveillance to go on," Ms Lieberman added.

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