Newly obtained documents indicate the New York Police Department may have committed constitutional violations by deploying plainclothes officers to monitor peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.
The NYPD wrote in a court filing last month that it found several records regarding its undercover operations of Black Lives Matter protests at Grand Central Station following the death of Eric Garner, an African-American male who died after a July 2014 altercation with law enforcement in Staten Island.
Writing in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the NYPD said it discovered multimedia records as well as communications that occurred between a plainclothes cop and their handlers in which they discussed the protests while they happened, The Guardian reported Thursday.
The NYPD has refused to release the records, however, because doing so could help “would-be criminals” learn “the circumstances in which the NYPD does not, or cannot, deploy undercover officers,” according to an Aug. 22 affidavit signed by John Donohue, a high-ranking ranking officer in the agency’s intelligence bureau.
Releasing internal multimedia records could additionally reveal “the kinds of optical technology NYPD uses, both in its undercover and general surveillance operations” and “any areas NYPD does not have under surveillance, thereby exposing gaps in coverage,” the officer wrote in last month’s affidavit.
Documents obtained through a FOIA request last year reveled that New York transit police had spied on Black Lives Matter protesters during the Grand Central demonstrations, but noted the gatherings were “peaceful” and “orderly.” Now as a result of last month’s affidavit, The Guardian reported that the NYPD has been for the first time implicated in undercover surveillance as well.
“The fear and disarming effect caused by undercovers being assigned to what were and continue to be extraordinarily peaceful protests is disturbing,” said MJ Williams, an attorney who is fighting to have the records released under the state’s freedom of information law. “To the extent that it would influence individuals not to participate and get individuals to censor what they say because of a fear of undercovers – that’s a basis for a first amendment violation.”
“As someone who was present at the protests, it’s disturbing to know the NYPD may have a file on me, ready to be used or to prevent me from getting a job simply because I’ve been active in some political capacity. That’s potentially a Fourth Amendment violation for unlawful seizure, but on the other hand, we’ve seen law enforcement agencies have all sorts of justifications for data collection for public safety that the courts have allowed,” she told The Guardian.
The NYPD did not immediately comment when contacted by The Guardian. When documents released last year revealed the undercover law enforcement efforts deployed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, a MTA spokesperson said the agency “must ensure the safety and security of millions of people who pass through our railroad systems every day, at a time when transportation networks have been persistently targeted by terrorists.”