Imagine there was a police department that sent video teams to record Black Lives Matter and Occupy protests hundreds of times over the course of a few years, going against specific department guidelines for when and how such operations are to take place, and when called and questioned on it, it reportedly refused to give answers.
Now imagine that the department in question is the New York City Police Department. Wait—you don’t have to imagine, because this actually happened.
The Verge has obtained copies of documents originally requested under a Freedom of Information Law request by New York attorney David Thompson of Stecklow, Cohen & Thompson, which show that the NYPD deployed police camera teams to Black Lives Matter and Occupy protests over 400 times from 2011 to 2013 and in 2016.
From The Verge:
... the records are job reports from the NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU) that document over 400 instances in which the unit’s video team attended, and sometimes filmed, demonstrations. More important than the records the NYPD turned over, however, are those that it claims it cannot find: namely, any documents demonstrating that legal reviews and authorizations of these surveillance operations took place.
While NYPD cameras have been regularly spotted at protests over the last six years, the frequency of their deployment and the departmental practices governing their use have remained unknown. Since mass protests broke out in New York City over the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner at the end of 2014, Black Lives Matter activists have pointed to the constant presence of cameras as one of the NYPD’s primary means of spying on the movement in addition to the presence of undercover officers.
Interim Order 22 is the NYPD’s set of guidelines for the filming of public activities, and it specifies that the deputy commissioner of legal matters is responsible for reviewing police requests to film demonstrations, and those requests are required to provide the reason for the filming. Once the request is approved, it is to be forwarded to NYPD higher-ups.
Thompson requested the approved requests and said he was told that no such records were located.
So which is it? Is the NYPD conducting unauthorized surveillance of protesters, or are they just really bad at record keeping?
Thompson told The Verge, “This process is intended to be a control to ensure there’s an adult in the room, a legally trained adult in this case who is able to understand whether or not the filming conforms to police guidelines or not.”
Thompson’s concern is that the NYPD officials are ordering protest surveillance without providing a clear reason for doing so.
His concern is valid.
The Verge spoke with Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and professor at John Jay College’s Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration Department.
“If an officer sends something to the legal bureau, it gets a number and gets recorded; then, it’s forwarded to whoever and gets another number,” Giacalone said. “No captain is going to take it upon himself to request a filming without any record because otherwise they’re asking for a lot of trouble from the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. So let’s put it this way, those things shouldn’t get lost.”
So why didn’t the department turn the documents over to Thompson? Maybe the documents don’t exist? Maybe the department is targeting certain groups that it has stereotyped or labeled as being trouble or worse?
More from The Verge:
Police are allowed to film demonstrations if they have reason to suspect that some crime may occur, and, according to Giacalone, this makes the department most focused on the groups deemed to be the most “radical,” and most likely to commit criminal acts at demonstrations. “No one is videotaping old geezers on wheelchairs protesting about trees or Roe v. Wade activists standing outside a clinic,” notes Giacalone. “The same folks in Occupy Wall Street turned into Black Lives Matter and now into anti-[Donald] Trump—they’re radicals, so we can make a pretty strong argument that something criminal may happen.”
The Verge reached out to the NYPD, but the department did not respond to “repeated” requests for comment on its protest documentation.
Read more at The Verge.