Cops sue cops for… spying on cops

From our correspondent Sarah Ferguson:

The irony couldn’t be more clear. New York City police and their union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, are suing the NYPD for spying on them at rallies and demonstrations held during their contract dispute with the city in the summer of 2004.

As reported on the front page of the Feb. 3 New York Times, the lawsuit, which was also filed on behalf of the firefighters union and other police unions, charges that the NYPD’s own surveillance of off-duty cops who attended these rallies was so heavy-handed and “intimidating” that it violated their civil rights. The cops’ lawyer even called videotaping a form of “political harrassment.”

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. For years activists at anti-war demos, Critical Mass bike rides and other protests have found themselves under the heavy gaze of of camera-toting Technical Assistance Response (TARU) officers seemingly recording their every move.

“For years we have complained about the NYPD videotaping protesters,” says Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has been fighting to curb police surveillance of activists since it filed its landmark Handschu case in 1971. “It’s nice to see that police officers now agree with us. It sure is ironic, however, how cops turn into the biggest advocates of constitutional rights when they become the targets of police misconduct.”

Following the Republican National Convention, when the NYPD even equipped a Fuji blimp with a high-powered camera to hone in on street protests, the NYCLU fired off yet another round of legal papers to challenge the blanket surveillance of political protests, along with the NYPD’s new practice of retaining tapes and photos for as long as it deems necessary.

So will this police suit help the NYCLU’s case? “Anything that makes the public more aware of the intimidating effect of police surveillance helps. When the police say it, that helps,” says Dunn.

Activists found news of the cops’ suit a bit galling, but were nevertheless pleased. “It just shows that this is too much already, if even the police are upset about it,” says Bill DiPaolo of Times Up!, the ecology group that helps promote the monthly Critical Mass bike rides, which have been subject to much undercover surveillance of late.
See New York Times, Dec. 22, 2005

Lately, Times Up! volunteers have taken to spying on the cops that come to spy on bikers during the mass rides. “We videotape them videotaping us. Since we’ve started doing it, we’ve noticed a significant decrease in the number of [police] who show up to videotape. But that may be because it’s become an issue in the press,” says DiPaolo.
See the Village Voice, Jan. 24

Perhaps the cops suing the cops should trying videotaping those cops, too.


Some background: While police, FBI, and military surveillance of activists has been a hot topic in the news lately, this police lawsuit is actually old news. It was originally filed back in August 2004, in response to the city’s efforts to rein in protesting cops, who were staging rowdy pickets and rallies over pay hikes and benefits in the weeks leading up to the Republican Convention. Off-duty police had even taken to “stalking” Mayor Bloomberg at public appearances, and there was talk of cops calling in sick during the Convention.

In addition to surveillance, the suit challenges the NYPD for herding protesting cops into pens, out of “sight and sound” of the target of their ire: Bloomberg.

Now that’s a familiar complaint.

“There’s been a lot of developments coming to light about police videotaping of protesters, so the claims in our case are dovetailing with the First Ammendment claims brought by the Civil Liberties Union,” said the cops’ lawyer Elizabeth McNammara, explaining the Times’ sudden interest in the lawsuit, which remains in the discovery phase.

See our last posts on paranoia in New York City, and the Critical Mass struggle.