The NYPD: Making New York Safer By Spying On Bicyclists, Relief Efforts And Republicans

Tech Dirt – by Tim Cushing

As more details continue to surface, the NYPD’s activities are beginning to make the NSA’s surveillance programs look like the paragon of restraint. We’ve already detailed how the NYPD (with help from a former CIA official) placed entire mosques under surveillance and infiltrated the Occupy movement.

Having effectively neutered the Handschu guidelines in 2003 (which placed severe restrictions on monitoring political activity), the NYPD was free to surveill all sorts of non-criminal, politically-focused gatherings.  

So before and during the Iraq War, the organization of antiwar rallies was regarded as a fit matter for police surveillance; so were the monthly Critical Mass bicycle rallies, as well as groups protesting at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and a range of Islamic facilities, from mosques to college student clubs.

That’s right. The NYPD cast its surveillance net over bicyclists. It also set its sights on the rescue/recovery efforts of Occupy Sandy, something that (perhaps due to it being a non-governmental effort) drew praise for its “nimble, effective work.”

The PD’s ongoing disregard for the civil liberties of New Yorkers (see also: stop-and-frisk) makes this news unsurprising. But it’s worth noting that these spying efforts were ushered in by a former CIA officer who persuaded a judge to drop the limits governing the surveillance of political activities by playing the terrorist card shortly after the 9/11 attacks. If the NYPD is going to protect New Yorkers from future terrorist attacks, it’s going to have to stop allocating resources to spy on non-terrorist, First Amendment-protected activities.

Then there’s the problem with the undercover officers themselves. As we’ve seen in previous reports about undercover anti-terrorism work, many of the “plots” are crafted and propelled by undercover agents with minimal encouragement and involvement from their targets. How much trouble do these cops stir up just to maintain cover and justify their efforts?

One of the large, undiscussed questions of such surveillance is how civic dialogue can be influenced or distorted by police agents — perhaps as provocateurs, or possibly with no motive beyond maintaining cover. During the Republican convention, after a group making a film was arrested, a redheaded man standing on the street pounded on the back window of a police van, urging that the people inside be let go. A day later, the same man was videotaped being briefly put under a fake arrest, leading to tumult in the street from others who objected to his incarceration. They were unaware that the man was an undercover police officer who was walked down the street by uniformed officers, hands behind his back but uncuffed, and sent on his way: catch and release.

Like other efforts being made to make us “safer,” these surveillance efforts lead to situations that are anything but. The widespread surveillance of non-terrorist, non-criminal entities both undermines the integrity of the infiltrated groups and actually leads to the commission of criminal activities that never would have been attempted if an NYPD officer wasn’t there to instigate and encourage this behavior.

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