NEW YORK - New York police admitted on Thursday to compiling and then destroying a database of people arrested during anti-war protests, but rights groups decried the practice as an erosion of civil liberties in the name of the U.S. war on terrorism.
A "debriefing form" was used by detectives to record information on hundreds of people arrested in a series of protests since mid-February against the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
"After a review, the department has decided to eliminate the use of the Demonstration Debriefing Form," NYPD chief spokesman Michael O'Looney said in a statement that was first reported in Thursday's New York Times.
"Arrestees will no longer be asked questions pertaining to prior demonstration history, or school name. All information gathered since the form's inception on Feb. 15 has been destroyed."
The practice ended after pressure from the New York Civil Liberties Union, which received complaints from demonstrators that they felt coerced and that their constitutional rights of free speech and free association were being violated.
Thursday's disclosure came just weeks after a judge cited "fundamental changes in the threats to public security" in lifting decades-long restrictions on the New York Police Department's ability to spy on political groups.
Law enforcement authorities, free speech advocates, media commentators and courts have all acknowledged that the hijacked plane attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001 and the U.S. war on Iraq have created a different atmosphere for policing in America for possible terrorism.
The collection of personal information of demonstrators, however, has not gone down well in New York, a city with a tradition and history of protest and dissent.
"We've had numerous demonstrations in New York in the past 18 months, but is their any evidence or connection whatsoever that people exercising their first amendment rights have anything to do with terrorism?" asked Jeffrey Fogel, legal director of New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
Police said they would continue to tally the names of organizations, but not individuals, to help in deciding how many officers to assign to future demonstrations.
But Fogel charged that still amounted to "intelligence gathering" by police that should be stopped.
New York Civil Liberties Union head Donna Lieberman said the United States was at "a crossroads" on the issue. "The country has to decide whether to preserve our democratic values or sacrifice them needlessly as the Bush administration would have us do on the altar of some inaccurate notion of national security. Safety is critical of course, but it's not necessary to give up our liberties," Lieberman said.
©2003 Reuters Ltd