Surveillance over Black Lives Matter: Undercover New York Police Officers Penetrated Black Lives Matter to Examine the Members
Several cops infiltrated small groups of the Black Lives Matter movement and gained access to all the information about them.
Surveillance over protesters? That’s exactly what Ney York police is doing according to the records issued under a lawsuit filed by New York law firm Stecklow & Thompson demanding freedom of information. The lawsuit was filed over the death of Eric Garner in 2014 and 2015.
The obtained under the lawsuit documents, mostly emails confirm that NYPD regularly filmed Black Lives Matter activists and sent undercover personnel to protests. Emails show that undercover officers posed as protesters and obtained extensive access to details about protesters’ whereabouts and plans. In one email, an official notes that an undercover officer is embedded within a group of seven protesters on their way to Grand Central Station. This intimate access appears to have helped police pass as trusted organizers and extract information about demonstrations. In other emails, officers share the locations of individual protesters at particular times. The NYPD emails also include pictures of organizers’ group text exchanges with information about protests.
Keegan Stephan, a regular attendee of the Grand Central protests in 2014 and 2015, said information about protesters’ whereabouts was limited to a small group of core organizers at that time. Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and professor at John Jay College, agreed that it would not be easy for an undercover officer to join a small group of protesters and hear their plans.
The NYPD documents also included a handful of pictures and one short video taken at Grand Central Station demonstrations. Most are pictures of crowds milling about or taking part in demonstrations. In one picture of a small group of activists, the NYPD identifies an individual in a brown jacket as the “main protester”. Giacalone said this type of leadership identification was standard police practice at protests. “If you take out the biggest mouth, everybody just withers away, so you concentrate on the ones you believe are your organizers,” he said. “Once you identify that person, you can run computer checks on them to see if they have a warrant out or any summons failures, then you can drag them in before they go out to speak or rile up the crowd, as long as you have reasonable cause to do so.
Well, was it legal?
According to Handschu Guidelines, the NYPD can begin formally investigating first amendment activity “when facts or circumstances reasonably indicate that an unlawful act has been, is being, or will be committed” and if the police surveillance plan has been authorized by a committee known as the Handschu Authority. However, according to the guidelines, before launching a formal investigation, the NYPD can also conduct investigative work such as “checking of leads” and “preliminary inquiries” with even lower standards of suspicion.
Michael Price, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said it was difficult to know whether NYPD’s undercover surveillance operations crossed the line, as the documents did not make clear what, if any, stage of investigation the police were in at the time of the operations. But he said the department’s retention of pictures and video raised questions, since police are not allowed to retain information about public events unless it relates to unlawful activity.
Throughout the emails, the NYPD’s undercover sources provide little indication of any unlawful activity, frequently characterizing demonstrators as peaceful and orderly with only one mention of a single arrest.
Giacalone argued that police could have easily come up with a legal justification to initiate surveillance, especially if such operations occurred after the shooting of two NYPD officers in December of 2014. But he noted that such investigative activities would be harder to justify if officers were not directly observing signs of unlawful activity.
“If they’re not talking about any crimes being committed, they’re going to have a difficult time defending this. It may end up in another one of these lawsuits,” said Giacalone. “Some may say this is good police work, fine, but good police work or not, we have rules against this kind of thing in New York.”
Attorneys have already filed a petition charging that the NYPD may have failed to produce all of its surveillance records. But for some protesters, the damage has already been done.