December 23, 2005
Surveillance, New York Style
It’s a sad day when a police force generally known for its professionalism is caught using underhanded tactics to spy on and even distort political protests and mass rallies. Yet that is precisely what an archive of videotapes shows New York City police officers or people working with them doing at seven public gatherings since August 2004. The sorry tale was laid out by Jim Dwyer in yesterday’s Times in an article based on civilian and police videotapes gathered by a forensic analyst critical of the tactics.
The most disturbing instance of improper behavior occurred last year during the Republican National Convention when a sham arrest of a man secretly working with the police set off a bruising confrontation with demonstrators.
The man, who had vivid blond hair, was holding a sign at a march of poor people when the police suddenly moved to arrest him. Onlookers shouted at the police to let him go, and officers in riot gear responded by pushing against the crowd. Protesters were put on the ground, and at least two were arrested. Meanwhile, the blond-haired man spoke quietly with the police and was quickly led away. The same man was videotaped at an arrest scene a day earlier calling out words that seemed intended to rile the bystanders.
This was a deliberate effort to incite violence that would in turn justify a tough police response.
Another disturbing incident occurred last year when a police helicopter, attempting to track bicycle riders at night through the Lower East Side, recorded nearly four minutes of a couple’s intimate moments on the secluded terrace of a Second Avenue penthouse. The night-vision camera did not catch the couple’s most personal moments, but the invasion of privacy proved deeply upsetting and brought a formal complaint from one of the victims. It was a sobering reminder for those who generally favor surveillance, as the penthouse owner does, that covert spying often sweeps up innocent victims.
The questionable police tactics may have been fostered by a national mood that favored tough antiterrorism measures after Sept. 11, 2001, even if that meant an erosion of civil liberties. The same impulse to overreach that led the Bush administration to intercept Americans’ international communications without warrants, and that emboldened the F.B.I. to spy on groups like Greenpeace and Catholic Worker members, was surely at work in New York when the police spied on people protesting the Iraq war, bicyclists riding in a mass rally and even mourners at a street vigil.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s record on free speech is already pretty poor. Unless he wants to make a disregard for New Yorkers’ rights part of his legacy, he should make sure that the police understand what civil liberties mean in a democracy.