Black cop group sues NYPD over telephone surveillance
NEW YORK — A group of black police officers has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the police department violated their civil rights by unlawfully monitoring their private phone conversations to see with whom they were associating.
Lt. Eric Adams, a co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, placed the blame for the secret surveillance — allegedly of home and cellular phones — squarely on the shoulders of Howard Safir, who served as police commissioner from 1996 to 2000.
Adams said Safir was angered over the group's public comments criticizing the New York Police Department for a host of policies regarding minority officers and residents.
“New Yorkers must know that if the police department can do this to a law enforcement body, it can do it to any citizen,” Adams said during a news conference held yesterday at New York Civil Liberties Union offices.
Safir, who now works in the private sector, said he was unaware of the group's lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court. The lawsuit does not name Safir as a defendant. The city, Verizon and 10 unnamed city employees were cited.
“There's no validity to any of that,” Safir said.
Lorna Goodman, with the city's law department, did not immediately return a telephone call for comment. Deputy Inspector Chris Rising, a police spokesman, said the NYPD only recently received notice of the lawsuit and could not comment on the specifics of the case.
“What we can state is that it is most definitely a policy and practice of the NYPD to comply with all facets of the law when conducting its investigations,” Rising said.
Adams said the lawsuit seeks answers from the NYPD as to why it found it necessary to monitor the group from August 1998 to last year, when Safir left office.
Sgt. Noel Leader, another 100 Blacks co-founder, said the surveillance caused the group to lose several supporters in the community.
“One of the effects of the surveillance was to intimidate individuals from associating with you,” Leader said.
Adams questioned the way the department approached Verizon about helping it obtain the private telephone numbers for 100 Blacks members. The lawsuit alleges that the NYPD, without a court order or warrant, went to Verizon for the information and was given it.
Verizon spokesman John J. Bonomo said when the company provides information to law enforcement agencies, it does so lawfully.
“We are confident that the company will be found to have acted appropriately in this case,” Bonomo said.
The surveillance became public last year when a police commander was giving testimony at the civil trial of a former officer who had sued the department claiming she was wrongfully fired.
During that trial, Deputy Chief Raymond King, of the Internal Affairs Bureau, said his unit had conducted probes of 100 Blacks and of Adams for an allegation not related to his organization. The allegations against Adams, which were never disclosed, were deemed unsubstantiated, meaning the charges could not be proved or disputed.
During his testimony, King did not say what the probe of 100 Blacks was about, but it was later learned that it involved complaints from two black officers in the Street Crime Unit that members of the group were allegedly harassing them following the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999.
The group allegedly wanted the Street Crime cops to tell them about possible racist activities within the unit. Diallo, an unarmed black West African immigrant, died after being hit by 19 out of 41 bullets fired by four white Street Crime officers. The officers were acquitted of all charges last year.
The 100 Blacks probe was closed and deemed unsubstantiated in March 1999.
The lawsuit was initially filed in October; it was amended last month. Adams said the group waited until now to announce the lawsuit because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He added that he called police Commissioner Bernard Kerik before the news conference to let him know about the lawsuit.
Adams spoke highly of Kerik, saying that the group's relationship with him was “very progressive.” But he added that Kerik said he did not believe the NYPD had acted inappropriately with the group. Kerik was not immediately available for comment.