December 31, 2005
Group Assails Monitoring of Political Events by Police
By JIM DWYER
A group of civil rights lawyers has charged that covert police surveillance at political demonstrations violates a federal court order that limits the secret monitoring of lawful public gatherings.
In a letter sent yesterday to the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, and the city’s corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, the lawyers demanded an end to what they say is illegal surveillance. If the city does not halt the practice, the lawyers wrote that they would seek to have the city held in contempt of court for not abiding by the settlement of a 1971 class-action lawsuit.
City officials declined to comment yesterday, after the letter, known as a notice to cure, was made public.
The lawyers cited a Dec. 22 article in The New York Times, which reported that officers in disguises attended at least seven events in the past 16 months, including antiwar protests, demonstrations during the 2004 Republican National Convention, and bicycle rallies known as Critical Mass held the last Friday of the month.
At last night’s rally, a number of riders said they were not surprised about the surveillance. “It’s obvious that there’s undercover,” said Adam Moore, 24, a photographer who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “They don’t look like anyone who would normally ride bikes. They’re easy to spot.”
During Critical Mass, riders move as a group through Manhattan streets to promote bicycling as alternative transportation, and as is common, the police arrested about a dozen bicyclists last night on traffic violations. Of nearly 300 cases prosecuted since September 2004, none have resulted in a conviction, said Gideon Oliver, a lawyer who has represented many of the riders.
The Police Department’s chief spokesman has said that disguised officers are permitted under the court order to attend demonstrations to keep order. But Jethro M. Eisenstein, one of the lawyers who filed the class-action lawsuit, said that violated the settlement.
“Putting plainclothes cops into a demonstration is an investigation of political activity,” he said.
The disguised police officers can be seen at seven events in videotapes made over the past 16 months. The tapes were collected by Eileen Clancy, a forensic video analyst who is critical of the tactics. She founded I-Witness Video, an archive of footage from public gatherings in New York City.
On one tape, it appeared that a disguised officer – or a person working with the police – influenced the course of a demonstration during the Republican convention. The man, who was on a sidewalk and holding a protest sign, appeared to have been arrested by uniformed officers.
Onlookers objected, police officers in riot gear responded, and others were arrested. A videotape showed that the man whose apparent arrest touched off the confrontation was never handcuffed and appeared to be carrying a two-way radio.
The chief spokesman for the Police Department, Paul J. Browne, has declined to comment on the videotapes, but said that police officers in disguises have attended public gatherings to patrol for unlawful behavior. Although the presence of disguised police officers at such events is limited by the settlement, Mr. Browne said those restrictions did not apply to officers who attend to keep order.
The class-action case, known as Handschu for one of the plainpngs, was brought on behalf of political activists who claimed that surveillance and infiltration of political organizations in the 1960’s subverted their right to free speech. They charged that police spies instigated trouble or polluted their messages. The case was settled in 1985, after the city agreed to broad restrictions on the surveillance of political activities. Many were eased after Sept. 11, 2001.