The New York police department has launched a courtroom crusade to overturn
a longstanding legal ruling limiting its ability to spy on political activists.
The move raised fears among civil liberties campaigners of a return to the
days when the NYPD's notorious Red Squad infiltrated dissident groups and collaborated
with the McCarthy anti-Communist witchhunts.
The police commissioner Ray Kelly believes the 1985 court ruling restricting
covert action by the NYPD now constitutes an obstacle to fighting terrorism. "We
live in a more dangerous, constantly changing world, one with challenges and threats
that were never envisioned when the ... guidelines were written," he said in a
The Handschu agreement, named after one of a coalition of activists who won
the court ruling, prevents police from monitoring political protests by New Yorkers,
except for the purposes of crowd control, and requires a reasonable suspicion
of criminality before legitimate political organizations can be infiltrated.
It came after decades in which the NYPD routinely compiled thousands of intelligence
files on student leaders and others it considered worryingly radical, passing
information to Congress and the CIA during the 1950s.
In the 1960s, the NYPD's bureau of strategic services, the successor to the
Red Squad, engaged in numerous "black bag jobs" - illegal operations - to keep
tabs on radicals at Columbia university and in the civil rights movement.
The Handschu agreement itself came after a legal battle that started when members
of the Black Panthers were accused of conspiring to blow up several New York department
stores, a police station, a railway and the New York Botanical Garden.
A jury acquitted them after it emerged that Manhattan's district attorney had
ordered the police to infiltrate the group. What followed looked like entrapment:
one officer, posing as a Panther, provided other group members with a map and
rented car for an armed robbery.
Mr Kelly's proposals, which a judge is expected to consider next month, would
mean that any NYPD unit could investigate any political group with out suspecting
a crime, could videotape or photograph demonstrations, and would no longer need
to convince a three-person panel - two police officials and a civilian - of the
legitimacy of an infiltration.
"Prior to the [Handschu] settlement, the government was collecting
dossiers, infiltrating organizations without any basis [for suspecting]
criminal activity, and even instigating illegal activities themselves," Donna
Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said.
"And when the government engages in this kind of systematic spying ... it has
a chilling effect on people because they are legitimately afraid to say what they
Related court rulings, limiting police spying, have also been weakened or reversed
in other cities including Chicago and San Francisco. But in New York at least,
critics have pointed out, Mr Kelly has not given a single example of the ruling
hampering an inquiry.
"When the government says they're not able to engage in surveillance at a mosque
that's known to support terrorism - well, that's precisely where the existing
guidelines do allow surveillance to go on," Ms Lieberman added.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002