Police Infiltrate Protests, Videotapes Show
December 22, 2005
By Jim Dwyer
New York Times
Undercover New York City police officers have conducted covert
surveillance in the last 16 months of people protesting the Iraq war,
bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies and even mourners at a
street vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident, a series of
In glimpses and in glaring detail, the videotape images reveal the
robust presence of disguised officers or others working with them at
seven public gatherings since August 2004.
The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners.
They ride in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer
in biking gear wore a button that said, “I am a shameless agitator.”
She also carried a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people
Beyond collecting information, some of the undercover officers or
their associates are seen on the tape having influence on events. At
a demonstration last year during the Republican National Convention,
the sham arrest of a man secretly working with the police led to a
bruising confrontation between officers in riot gear and bystanders.
Until Sept. 11, the secret monitoring of events where people
expressed their opinions was among the most tightly limited of police
Provided with images from the tape, the Police Department’s chief
spokesman, Paul J. Browne, did not dispute that they showed officers
at work but said that disguised officers had always attended such
gatherings — not to investigate political activities but to keep
order and protect free speech. Activists, however, say that police
officers masquerading as protesters and bicycle riders distort their
messages and provoke trouble.
The pictures of the undercover officers were culled from an
unofficial archive of civilian and police videotapes by Eileen Clancy,
a forensic video analyst who is critical of the tactics. She gave
the tapes to The New York Times. Based on what the individuals
said, the equipment they carried and their almost immediate release
after they had been arrested amid protesters or bicycle riders,
The Times concluded that at least 10 officers were incognito
at the events.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, officials at all levels of
government considered major changes in various police powers.
President Bush acknowledged last Saturday that he has secretly
permitted the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a warrant
on international telephone calls and e-mail messages in terror
In New York, the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
persuaded a federal judge in 2003 to enlarge the Police Department’s
authority to conduct investigations of political, social and religious
groups. “We live in a more dangerous, constantly changing world,”
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said.
Before then, very few political organizations or activities were
secretly investigated by the Police Department, the result of a 1971
class-action lawsuit that charged the city with abuses in surveillance
during the 1960’s. Now the standard for opening inquiries into
political activity has been relaxed, full authority to begin
surveillance has been restored to the police and federal courts no
longer require a special panel to oversee the tactics.
Mr. Browne, the police spokesman, said the department did not
increase its surveillance of political groups when the restrictions
were eased. The powers obtained after Sept. 11 have been used
exclusively “to investigate and thwart terrorists,” Mr. Browne said.
He would not answer specific questions about the disguised officers
or describe any limits the department placed on surveillance at
Jethro M. Eisenstein, one of the lawyers who brought the lawsuit
34 years ago, said: “This is a level-headed Police Department, led
by a level-headed police commissioner. What in the world are they
For nearly four decades, civil liberty advocates and police
officials have fought over the kinds of procedures needed to avoid
excessive intrusion on people expressing their views, to provide
accountability in secret police operations and to assure public
safety for a city that has been the leading American target of
To date, officials say no one has complained of personal
damage from the information collected over recent months, but
participants in the protests, rallies and other gatherings say
the police have been a disruptive presence.
Ryan Kuonen, 32, who took part in a “ride of silence” in memory
of a dead cyclist, said that two undercover officers — one with a
camera — subverted the event. “They were just in your face,” she
said. “It made what was a really solemn event into something that
seemed wrong. It made you feel like you were a criminal. It was
Ms. Clancy, a founder of
I-Witness Video, a project that collected hundreds of videotapes
during the Republican National Convention that were used in the
successful defense of people arrested that week, has assembled
videotape of other public events made by legal observers, activists,
bystanders and police officers.
She presented examples in October at a conference of defense
lawyers. “What has to go on is an informed discussion of policing
tactics at public demonstrations, and these images offer a window into
the issues and allow the public to make up their own mind,” Ms. Clancy
said. “How is it possible for police to be accountable when they
infiltrate events and dress in the garb of protesters?”
The videotapes that most clearly disclosed the presence of the
disguised officers began in August 2004. What happened before that is
Among the events that have drawn surveillance is a monthly bicycle
ride called Critical Mass. The Critical Mass rides, which have no
acknowledged leadership, take place in many cities around the world on
the last Friday of the month, with bicycle riders rolling through the
streets to promote bicycle transportation. Relations between the
riders and the police soured last year after thousands of cyclists
flooded the streets on the Friday before the Republican National
Convention. Officials say the rides cause havoc because the
participants refuse to obtain a permit. The riders say they can use
public streets without permission from the government.
In a tape made at the April 29 Critical Mass ride, a man in a
football jersey is seen riding along West 19th Street with a group of
bicycle riders to a police blockade at 10th Avenue. As the police
begin to handcuff the bicyclists, the man in the jersey drops to one
knee. He tells a uniformed officer, “I’m on the job.” The officer in
uniform calls to a colleague, “Louie — he’s under.” A second officer
arrives and leads the man in the jersey — hands clasped behind his
back — one block away, where the man gets back on his bicycle and
That videotape was made by a police officer and was recently turned
over by prosecutors to Gideon Oliver, a lawyer representing bicycle
riders arrested that night.
Another arrest that appeared to be a sham changed the dynamics
of a demonstration. On Aug. 30, 2004, during the Republican National
Convention, a man with vivid blond hair was filmed as he stood on
23rd Street, holding a sign at a march of homeless and poor people.
A police lieutenant suddenly moved to arrest him. Onlookers protested,
shouting, “Let him go.” In response, police officers in helmets and
with batons pushed against the crowd, and at least two other people
The videotape shows the blond-haired man speaking calmly with the
lieutenant. When the lieutenant unzipped the man’s backpack, a two-way
radio could be seen. Then the man was briskly escorted away, unlike
others who were put on the ground, plastic restraints around their
wrists. And while the blond-haired man kept his hands clasped behind
his back, the tape shows that he was not handcuffed or restrained.
The same man was videotaped a day earlier, observing the actress
Rosario Dawson as she and others were arrested on 35th Street and
Eighth Avenue as they filmed “This Revolution,” a movie that used
actual street demonstrations as a backdrop. At one point, the
blond-haired man seemed to try to rile bystanders.
After Ms. Dawson and another actress were placed into a police van,
the blond-haired man can be seen peering in the window. According to
Charles Maol, who was working on the film, the blond-haired man is the
source of a voice that is heard calling: “Hey, that’s my brother in
there. What do you got my brother in there for?”
After Mr. Browne was sent photographs of the people involved in the
convention incidents and the bicycle arrests, he said, “I am not
commenting on descriptions of purported or imagined officers.”
The federal courts have long held that undercover officers can
monitor political activities for a “legitimate law enforcement
purpose.” While the police routinely conduct undercover operations
in plainly criminal circumstances — the illegal sale of weapons, for
example — surveillance at political events is laden with ambiguity.
To retain cover in those settings, officers might take part in public
dialogue, debate and demonstration, at the risk of influencing others
to alter opinions or behavior.
The authority of the police to conduct surveillance of First
Amendment activities has been shaped over the years not only by the
law but also by the politics of the moment and the perception of
public safety needs.
In the 1971 class-action lawsuit, the city acknowledged that the
Police Department had used infiltrators, undercover agents and fake
news reporters to spy on yippies, civil rights advocates, antiwar
activists, labor organizers and black power groups.
A former police chief said the department’s intelligence files
contained a million names of groups and individuals — more in just
the New York files than were collected for the entire country in a
now-discontinued program of domestic spying by the United States Army
around the same time. In its legal filings, the city said any excesses
were aberrational acts.
The case, known as Handschu for the lead plainpng, was settled
in 1985 when the city agreed to extraordinary new limits in the
investigation of political organizations, among them the creation of
an oversight panel that included a civilian appointed by the mayor.
The police were required to have “specific information” that a crime
was in the works before investigating such groups.
The Handschu settlement also limited the number of police officers
who could take part in such investigations and restricted sharing
information with other agencies.
Over the years, police officials made no secret of their belief
that the city had surrendered too much power. Some community affairs
officers were told they could not collect newspaper articles about
political gatherings in their precincts, said John F. Timoney, a
former first deputy commissioner who is now the chief of police in
The lawyers who brought the Handschu lawsuit say that such concerns
were exaggerated to make limits on police behavior seem unreasonable.
The city’s concessions in the Handschu settlement, while similar to
those enacted during that era in other states and by the federal
government, surpassed the ordinary limits on police actions.
“It was to remedy what was a very egregious violation of people’s
First Amendment rights to free speech and assemble,” said Jeremy
Travis, the deputy police commissioner for legal affairs from 1990
At both the local and federal level, many of these reforms
effectively discouraged many worthy investigations, Chief Timoney
said. “The police departments screw up and we go to extremes to fix
it,” Chief Timoney said. “In going to extremes, we leave ourselves
Mr. Travis, who was on the Handschu oversight panel, said that
intelligence officers understood they could collect information,
provided they had good reason.
“A number of courts decided there should be some mechanism set
up to make sure the police didn’t overstep the boundary,” said
Mr. Travis, who is now the president of John Jay College of Criminal
Justice. “It was complicated finding that boundary.” The authority
to determine the boundary would be handed back to the Police
Department after the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Sept. 12, 2002, the deputy police commissioner for intelligence,
David Cohen, wrote in an affidavit that the police should not be
required to have a “specific indication” of a crime before
investigating. “In the case of terrorism, to wait for an indication
of crime before investigating is to wait far too long,” he wrote.
Mr. Cohen also took strong exception to limits on police
surveillance of public events.
In granting the city’s request, Charles S. Haight, a federal
judge in Manhattan, ruled that the dangers of terrorism were “perils
sufficient to outweigh any First Amendment cost.”
New guidelines say undercover agents may be used to investigate
“information indicating the possibility of unlawful activity” —
but also say that commanders should consider whether the tactics
are “warranted in light of the seriousness of the crime.”
Ms. Clancy said those guidelines offered no clear limits on
intrusiveness at political or social events. Could police officers
take part in pot-luck suppers of antiwar groups, buy drinks for
activists? Could they offer political opinions for broadcast or
publication while on duty but disguised as civilians?
Mr. Browne, the police spokesman, declined to answer those
questions. Nor would he say how often — if ever — covert
surveillance at public events has been approved by the deputy
commissioner for intelligence, as the new guidelines require.
Copyright 2005, New York Times