The NYPD Wants to Watch You

Nation's Largest Law Enforcement Agency Vies for Total Spying Power

"I don't think any of us had a clue until we were brought on trial that we were infiltrated to the extent that we were," recalls Shaba Om, one of the 21 and an original plaintiff in the Handschu case. "They had agents deep undercover, whom I counted as my closest friends. I was facing 375 consecutive years in prison. But I got nothing. The terrorists and murderers they described didn't exist."

Radicals were not the only ones spied on, Om recalls. "They were surveilling church groups, civic groups, social organizations." Indeed, police reported during the Handschu case that their intelligence files dated back to 1904 and included some 1 million records on over 200,000 individuals and groups. The trove was so vast, an official informed the court in 1981, that it would take "approximately 41.5 man-years" to organize the files for public viewing, as the plaintiffs' lawyers were asking at the time.

In a 1971 affidavit in the Handschu case, then police commissioner Patrick Murphy admitted to "infiltrations and informers, and telephone wiretapping, electronic eavesdropping, surreptitious recording of conversations, covert photography of individuals attending demonstrations, and recording speeches at demonstrations," according to the judge's written summary. Murphy said targets did not have to be linked with a crime but could merely be political "malcontents."

Police videotaping of protesters, as at this February anti-globalization rally, could become the norm.
photo: Julia Xanthos
Police videotaping of protesters, as at this February anti-globalization rally, could become the norm.

The malcontents of the time included Vietnam War protesters, gay rights activists, health and housing advocates, education reform groups, and civil rights activists. Among them were Steven Fischler and his friends, NYU film students in the early 1970s. They belonged to such groups as the anarchist "Transcendental Students" and were regulars at protests. But their real problems with the NYPD Red Squad, as the political intelligence unit was nicknamed then, began when they started shooting a film called Red Squad about police surveillance.

"In some respects, we were outsmarting them," Fischler remembers. The students used wireless microphones and hidden cameras, for instance, to record plainclothes police interrogating them. As the Voice's Nat Hentoff reported in June 1971, officers visited one student's parents unannounced and questioned neighbors. Records Fischler later obtained show that agents questioned their professors. His message for students today: "Police now might be after some Middle Eastern organization you might not be a member of, but who knows in the future where they might go." Fischler and fellow student filmmaker Joel Sucher signed on as original plaintiffs in the Handschu case.

Aggressive tactics were far from uncommon. Red Squad detectives would question the teachers, neighbors, landlords, family members, and employers of their targets. The NYPD intelligence unit sometimes supplied political information to public and private employers, costing applicants jobs.

At the city Department of Welfare in the 1950s, police acted even more directly to punish dissent, says Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at Queens College. Considering the agency to be "a hotbed of unionism," the "militantly anti-Communist" commissioner, Raymond Hilliard, "sent in 24 rookie patrolmen posing as workers to be spies. They just set out to smash this thing." By the end of Hilliard's tenure, Freeman says, 191 workers had lost their jobs. "The context was McCarthyism, but the impact was really to delay unionization."

By the 1970s, between the operations of COINTELPRO and the NYPD's BOSS—or Bureau of Special Services, as the political intelligence unit was officially titled at one point—New York activist groups were spooked and crumbling.

Iris Morales joined the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican rights network, in 1969, after years of organizing tenants where she lived in East Harlem. The mix of global anti-colonization work and local community service—free breakfast and youth education, for instance—drew her in. But as undercover police contact with the group seemed to grow, "the organization started to disintegrate," she says. The paranoia and fingerpointing among friends exhausted her and eventually pushed her away.

The Handschu Agreement was not a perfect cure. There have been numerous complaints of violations since 1985. Still, activists have benefited, if only in enjoying an official standard by which to assert their rights.

In the order's sole contempt proceeding in court, ultimately decided in the NYPD's favor, police admitted to taping black activists who spoke on radio station WLIB in 1987. They claimed to be listening for event planning information about protests, but it turned out they had mostly recorded speakers' political views. Police had not asked permission from the Handschu committee. The NYPD's actions were found to be "inappropriate," but not in formal violation of the court decree. Still the complaint wrung an apology from the police commissioner and generated wide media exposure of what investigators had inappropriately done to some of the city's most prominent blacks.

A complaint about improper photography at rallies for Cuba in April 1990 similarly yielded no punishment of cops. Neither did a complaint 10 years later about visual surveillance of protesters after the February 2000 acquittal of the cops who shot Amadou Diallo to death. Each case, however, gave the activists and more broadly the Handschu guidelines a platform in the press—alleged violations typically make the news—and ended in recommendations for improved police procedure.

But the Handschu rules are most useful as a tool for protesters on the ground, says Leslie Brody, a National Lawyers Guild attorney who has supervised dozens of New York demonstrations. "The police know what it is, and when we talk to them in the street, they know we're watching them." At an anti-police-brutality march several years ago, she says, she got cops who were wrongly videotaping protesters to stop and actually hand her the cassette by citing the Handschu order.

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