Officer’s Disguise, at a Protest, Causes Stir
The New York Times
October 1, 2004
By DIANE CARDWELL
Sometimes it is the overlooked moments that have a way of coming back. In this one, a crew of undercover police officers on motorcycles were following a crowd of protesters on the Saturday before the start of the Republican National Convention in late August. One of them, in a bid to disguise his identity, wore a helmet bearing a provocative sticker.
”Loud Wives Lose Lives,” it read.
To some people, including lawyers at the New York Civil Liberties Union, the officer’s choice of slogan, popular among the biker set, was at best an exercise in bad taste, and at worst something qualifying as misconduct.
Armed with a photograph of the officer, the advocacy group’s lawyers sent a letter to the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, asking that ”prompt action be taken” to address the matter, especially given several recent deadly episodes of domestic violence against women in the New York region.
But to the New York Police Department, wearing the sticker was a routine part of undercover work.
”It’s absurd for the N.Y.C.L.U. to suggest officer misconduct,” said Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman. ”It’s like saying that an undercover narcotics officer who wears a coke spoon is promoting cocaine use when just the opposite is true.”
It is the latest episode in the back and forth between civil libertarians and the police as the courts wrestle with the handling of protesters before, during and after the convention.
”It’s unfortunate that the Police Department is taking that position,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. ”Whatever his function, there is no excuse for a police officer on official business to be a proponent of domestic violence or other violence against women. There are other ways to disguise yourself without this hateful message.”
In their letter to the Police Department, the civil liberties lawyers asked that the message, and any similar ones, be removed from police equipment and that those responsible be disciplined.
The lawyers wrote that the sticker was also problematic because the officer, to them, appeared to be trying to blend in among protesters, many of whom said that they were unfairly characterized by police as tending toward violence, by wearing a violent slogan. ”Indeed, even beyond the reprehensible content of this specific message, we do not believe it appropriate for officers ever to be endorsing violence, particularly in the context of demonstrations,” the letter reads.
But Mr. Browne dismissed that reasoning as conspiracy-minded, saying that the scooter team that day had broken its cover when it responded to a call from uniformed officers assigned to the protest for assistance. ”Normally they would be out trying to intercept or come upon a crime in progress,” he said. ”They weren’t going to be routinely policing a march.”
As for the controversial sticker, Mr. Browne said, ”Undercover officers often adopt personas to include garb that reflects neither their personal nor the department’s sentiments but to reinforce the guise that they are not police officers.” He added that ”offensive as this saying is,” it is not uncommon in ”misogynistic biker slang emblazoned on clothing, jewelry and equipment.”
In this case, though, the attempt to avoid being recognized as a police officer appears to have failed.
In an article about the protest that appeared on ZNet, a left-leaning Web site, a high school teacher named Mike Schwartz wrote that the march ”was followed by a group of undercover cops on motorcycles who looked like they belonged in a bad biker movie,” highlighting the officer with the sticker.
”I couldn’t believe the sticker, it was just so blatant,” Mr. Schwartz said in a telephone interview yesterday, adding that whatever cover the officer may have had was gone by the time he was following the march. ”At that moment,” he said, ”it’s a police officer endorsing that kind of view.”
Photo: Police officials say a provocative statement on the helmet of an officer trying to look like a biker was a routine part of undercover work. (Photo by Terry J. Allen)