NYPD quietly drops policy on videotaping political activity

Thursday, November 13, 2008

NEW YORK — The country’s biggest police department has quietly dropped a policy that encouraged officers to videotape political demonstrations — even legal and peaceful ones — without restrictions, a civil rights group said Nov. 10.

The New York Civil Liberties Union had challenged the New York Police Department policy in federal court following the 2004 Republican National Convention. The NYCLU filed the challenge as part of a decades-old case, Handschu v. Special Services Division, which in 1985 resulted in a consent decree limiting police surveillance of political activity.

NYCLU officials say the policy was changed last year but they weren’t notified until last month. As a result, they say, their legal challenge has continued.

“While we’re glad that the NYPD realized its surveillance policy ran counter to the Handschu decree, it’s disturbing that the department did so in secret, wasting precious tax dollars to engage in an unnecessary legal battle,” said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the NYCLU.

The city’s Law Department disputed that claim, saying it notified a judge about the changes in the videotaping policy in February 2007.

The NYCLU filed its challenge in 2005 with U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight, who oversees the Handschu consent decree. That decree settled a 1971 lawsuit brought by the Black Panther Party alleging that police engaged in widespread surveillance of legitimate political activity and distributed the information elsewhere, including to law enforcement groups.

In its challenge, the NYCLU said the police went too far in routinely videotaping political demonstrations. The group said that during the 2004 GOP convention, which was held at Madison Square Garden, roving teams of officers armed with video cameras infringed on free speech by taping protests at will. Soon after the convention, the NYCLU said, the NYPD adopted a policy allowing officers to photograph and videotape all political activity in the city without restriction.

Police said the taping was needed as a security measure to combat terrorism, and they have steadfastly denied violating civil rights.

The NYPD, which has more than 35,000 officers, “does not engage in unlawful political surveillance,” a city lawyer, Celeste Koeleveld, said in a statement Nov. 10.

With the outcome of the NYCLU’s challenge still pending, the NYPD issued an internal order in April 2007 withdrawing the regulation permitting unrestricted photographing and videotaping of all political activity in the city, the NYCLU said. The order restored guidelines under the Handschu decree.

The revised written policy removes broader language permitting recording of “events, actions, conditions or statements made” when “such accurate documentation is deemed potentially beneficial or useful.” It mandates a “bona fide need” to tape, such as capturing a crime in progress or assessing crowd conditions.

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