Security or Suppression?

Examining NYPD Crackdowns on Activists

Early this year the NYPD gained greater power to investigate political activity, citing terrorism concerns. The department convinced a federal judge that its security needs in these times of unprecedented danger outweigh most of the rights protections in a key 1985 ban on police probes of lawful activism. But as civil liberties advocates feared, the most notable police actions since have had seemingly little to do with terrorism prevention and everything to do with regulating—critics say, repressing—protest.

Tension between activists and police has swelled with each demonstration. Yet so far neither side has outright called the series of skirmishes what it is shaping up to be: a struggle over the very right to protest in the streets of New York. The battle unfolds as potentially the biggest showdown of all, the 2004 Republican National Convention, looms.

One major clash erupted over the NYPD's "Criminal Intelligence Section Demonstration Debriefing Form," a one-page template that officers used to question hundreds of arrested protesters about their politics, beginning with the massive February 15 anti-war rally. Activists were quizzed on, among other topics, their group membership, views on the Middle East, and whereabouts on September 11, 2001, according to advocates. Answers were entered into a computer database. First Amendment lawyers learned of the practice in early April and called it invasive and chilling, generating much publicity.

Yet perhaps because police promised to abandon the form and database—although not political questioning in general—details of the form and the motives behind it were never fully examined. A closer look shows that police were sloppy at best with sensitive information about people not suspected of any serious crime. At worst, these data were marked for entry into a major network used for high-level law enforcement.

The form bears the stamp of the NYPD Intelligence Division and also a graphic that has been described only as "a federal seal." That seal belongs to the New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (NY/NJ HIDTA), a division of a federal agency. A drug agency seems at first glance out of place on the political questionnaire. But NY/NJ HIDTA happens to run a vast criminal information database accessible to some 600 different law enforcement agencies.

NY/NJ HIDTA's Regional Intelligence Center (RIC) database, according to the agency's Web site, provides "one-stop shopping" for law enforcement agents, with "access to virtually all of the law enforcement and commercial computer records. Inquiries can be run on, among other things, persons, vehicles, businesses, addresses, and telephone numbers."

The NYPD political questionnaire provides space for writing in a "RIC Control #" and the name of the officer requesting or entering data.

Still, both agencies rushed to deny that protesters' information had been stored in this massive database. A spokesperson for NY/NJ HIDTA director Chauncey Parker, who is also Governor George Pataki's appointed director of criminal justice, said, "He did not authorize the document, nor did he have knowledge of it." Following the Voice's inquiry, the representative said, "he spoke to NYPD officials about the form to express concerns."

Top police spokesperson Deputy Commissioner Michael O'Looney also insisted, "The information was not entered into the RIC database." He called the form the unsupervised "mistake" of a low-level intelligence officer and said, "You're reading too much into this. I would think we'd be getting some credit here for taking fast action in ending [the form's] use once it was brought to the commissioner's attention." He said all paper and computer records related to the form had been destroyed, at the request of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

At an April 10 press conference Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly called the use of the form "a good-faith effort on the part of some people in the department to help. . . . These types of things can happen in a big organization."

He said such political probes would in the future require the approval of the NYPD's head of intelligence, Deputy Commissioner David Cohen. (When the Voice inquired last week, O'Looney downgraded the rank needed for approval to deputy inspector.)

NYCLU lawyer Christopher Dunn was skeptical about the rogue cop explanation. "The Intelligence Division is a very tightly run organization. It is just inconceivable that a high-level official didn't know about this," he said. But even if the NYPD is to be taken at its word, he pointed out, "that raises all sorts of questions about the control they have over their personnel." Indeed, the form conjured for some the past era of political policing when some cop spies, known as the Red Squad, wrongly investigated Black Panthers, Vietnam war protesters, and other leftists. Some abuses were system-wide, but others occurred in isolated instances.

In a letter to the city last week, Dunn complained that protesters were arrested without being told their Miranda rights and "interrogated about their political activities" without the presence of a lawyer even at times when one was requested. Some activists have complained of being questioned in isolated jail cells and being deprived of food and water. They said they were led to believe they would be treated better if they cooperated.

But O'Looney insisted that such questioning is a "voluntary" process, which people are free to resist, with queries "asked of people under arrest, not protesters obeying the law." The department has never said that the questioning was improper, only that, as O'Looney said, "the information being asked was not relevant to the department's needs."

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