Spying Behind the Shield
An organization that represents black police officers announced a federal lawsuit against new york city earlier this month, claiming the new york police department secretly and illegally monitored its political activities by reviewing telephone records and following members over a two-year period. The group, 100 blacks in law enforcement who care, also alleges that the nypd used its phone records to keep tabs on other progressive groups in the city, compiling a database of sorts on high-profile leaders in communities of color.
The plaintiffs are asking for $80 million in damages and have included telephone giant Verizon in the suit. They allege Verizon turned over their personal phone records to police officers without following proper procedures. A Verizon spokesperson says information was provided in accordance with applicable law. NYPD Public Affairs did not respond by press time, but has gone on record admitting the department did briefly investigate the political activities of 100 Blacks leader Lieutenant Eric Adams. Adams claims such a probe would turn up information on people such as Reverend Al Sharpton, Reverend Herbert Daughtry, David Dinkins, and other prominent politicians and activists.
100 Blacks has always had a contentious relationship with the NYPD, despite the fact that they are all law enforcement personnel. The group, which was started by Adams, 41, an 88th Precinct platoon commander, and Sergeant Noel Leader, 43, head of the 79th Precinct's domestic violence unit, focuses on the department's racial discord and its relations with communities of color. "We always knew the NYPD would want to know who was in our group and who wasn't," says Leader, "so we made sure it was never discussed on company time."
Nonetheless, group members always believed the NYPD was monitoring their off-duty activities but couldn't prove it. Things came to a head in July 2000 during a civil suit against the department by former Street Crime Unit (SCU) member Yvette Walton. Walton was fired in April 1999 by then commissioner Howard Safir 30 minutes after testifying anonymously at a New York City Council hearing on the SCU and the death of Amadou Diallo.
The NYPD denied her dismissal had any connection to her testimony. The one group who knew her identity and had often discussed her pending appearance before the council was 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, of which she was a member. "We felt her dismissal was a reprisal for her speaking out against the SCU and for being in our group," says Leader. "And we suspected the NYPD learned her identity through its covert monitoring of 100 Blacks." Walton filed a civil lawsuit claiming her free speech had been violated and eventually won (although she has yet to be reinstated, while the city weighs an appeal).
The most startling fact to come out of Walton's suit was that the NYPD had been conducting clandestine surveillance of Adams and the organization for an extended period. "Surveillances were conducted," admitted Deputy Chief Raymond King, an Internal Affairs Bureau commander. "Phone records were obtained."
Further inquiries revealed the NYPD did not get a court order to pull the members' personal phone records but used "an administrative subpoena" to get them from Verizon. K.C. Okoli, the lawyer for 100 Blacks, says he's never heard of such a thing, and trial transcripts show that even the presiding judge, Alvin Hellerstein, asked King, "What is an administrative subpoena?"
This is just one of the many questions that remain unanswered. Okoli feels the facts as they stand are strong enough to win the suit, but he's also confident of finding more facts during the discovery and deposition processes. "I expect we will see that much more went on than just pulling phone records."
The complaint Okoli filed alleges that undercover NYPD agents attended the group's press conferences, that on several occasions members were followed, and their conversations with other activists recorded. Adams and Leader both suspect their phones were tapped and their personal computer files perhaps illegally accessed.
"The goal is to find out who authorized this investigation," says Adams, "and what they were looking for." 100 Blacks already knows from King's testimony that the NYPD took note of all incoming and outgoing calls made by certain members of the group, many of which went to leaders in communities of color. Adams and Leader plan to run a cross-reference on the many community organizations they deal with and see how many of their leaders or members were brought in on unrelated charges or audited by the IRS during the period clandestine surveillance was conducted. "We're going to be looking for patterns," says Adams. "Did they monitor any other police officers, or only black ones? Or only our organization? And did they use the tools of the state to intimidate the groups we deal with? Because that speaks to a policy, and it's different from random occurrences."
A-S Wahid, a social justice activist who works for a large legal firm in Brooklyn, thinks the black officers should take a deeper look. "In my experience," says Wahid, "those with the power will allow you to go only as far as they want you to goand when you're black, that's only so far. It's probable that the NYPD wanted the surveillance to become public knowledge because it will silence a lot of people around 100 Blacksthey'll be afraid to talk to that group now."
There are certain events in the genesis of 100 Blacks' lawsuit that do smack of manipulation. Just prior to 1998, Adams says he began to receive notes and phone calls at work from a mystery man who identified himself as a "friend on the dark side." (In cop parlance, "dark side" refers to the Internal Affairs Bureau.) It was through these communiqués that Adams learned a secret camera had been planted in his office and that some of his private phone conversations were being taped.
Then the "friend" began paging Adams late at night and keying in strange phone numbers. When Adams called them, they invariably turned out to be the home numbers of some of the NYPD's highest-ranking brass. "I don't know whether this person was trying to show me who was conducting the investigation into 100 Blacks, or showing me how well-connected he was, since these numbers were highly classified," Adams says.
Then one night Adams got a beep from an unknown pager number. Suspecting it was his friend again, he took the number to IAB and asked them to track down the owner. IAB dragged its feet, and when he formally demanded an answer, he says IAB officers hedged. "They were being very vague," Adams recalls, "just telling me not to worry about it and let it go. Finally, reluctantly, they admitted the pager number was that of the IAB pool pagersomeone from their own department was feeding that information to me."
Adams chooses to see his friend as a guardian angel, but Wahid has a different take. He thinks the NYPD's surveillance was a preventative power play to scare off the activist community and keep Adams and Leaderboth charismatic, effective, and articulatein check. "Whoever ordered this investigation wanted 100 Blacks to know who's ultimately in control."
And Okoli is leery enough about possible tampering to have filed in federal court, wanting to avoid "state judges who are elected and therefore vulnerable to the opinions of their constituencies." The case does have long-term legal ramifications for civil liberties, particularly post-9-11. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is assisting in the lawsuit, cites it as a perfect example of why the country needs to stave off Attorney General John Ashcroft's anti-civil-liberties onslaught. "If the NYPD is conducting this type of surveillance nowagainst some of their own, I might addwhile it's still illegal, how far overboard will government agencies go when it's deemed acceptable behavior?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.