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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Calls for Stricter Rules on NYPD Spying

MANHATTAN (CN) — Tossing a wrench in a major civil rights case, a federal judge found the New York City Police Department's proposed settlement tightening guidelines on religiously or politically motivated surveillance does not go far enough.

The surprising ruling made public on Monday sends the nation's largest police force and most prominent civil-liberties advocates back to the negotiating table to revise the so-called Handschu regulations, which date back to a landmark case from 1971.

A settlement in that lawsuit more a decade later put the NYPD under federal monitoring for violating the First Amendment protections of political activists.

After Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. District Judge Charles Haight gave the police force more room to depart from those guidelines in the name of fighting terrorism. But the department used that leverage to create what it called a Demographics Unit, which kept tabs on mosques and other Muslim gathering places across the city.

The Associated Press peeled the curtain on that unit a Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé in 2012.

In the wake of the revelations, Muslims on the receiving end of the NYPD's scrutiny filed two federal lawsuits, the latter of which urged the the court to recalibrate the rules defending the privacy of innocent citizens.

Their lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union reached a deal with New York City in early January achieving a new balance.

Dissatisfation with the settlement was on display in April, when detractors complained about its narrow scope at two day-long hearings.

In a ruling dated Oct. 28 but released Monday, Haight agreed that the settlement left too many unprotected.

"Responsible NYPD supervisors have been conscientious in instructing police officers about the Handschu guidelines and including them in the Department Patrol Guide," he wrote in a 41-page opinion. "Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that the history of the NYPD's adherence to the Handschu guidelines has been problematic at times."

Particularly troubling for Haight was a report by the NYPD's inspector general Philip Eure on Aug. 23, showing the department takes shortcuts to approve the use of confidential informants in investigations.

Under the rules, the NYPD must specify why it wants to use an informant to infiltrate a community, but the watchdog found that the department "repeatedly used generic, boilerplate text to seek such permission."

"Tellingly, this boilerplate text was so routine that the same typographical error had been cut and pasted into virtually every application [the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD] reviewed, going back over a decade," the report states.

The NYPD's watchdog also found that the department continued investigations of political activity 53.5 percent of the time even after its authorization expired.

Haight blasted these findings as a "serious failing" by the NYPD.

"Those failures suggest a systemic inclination on the part of the Intelligence Bureau to disregard the guidelines' mandates," he wrote.

The ruling recommended three possible areas for improvement: beefing up the role of a Handschu committee to monitor the NYPD, empowering a civilian representative to file quarterly reports for the court, and weakening the mayor's "unfettered veto power" over that civilian representative.

In an unsigned statement, lawyers for the plaintiffs seeking approval of the settlement emphasized the urgency for quickly affirming new protections.

"The court's ruling highlights safeguards we sought to secure but the NYPD refused to accept, and we hope it convinces the NYPD to establish additional protections against unwarranted surveillance," the attorneys said. "This development is an opportunity to put the strongest safeguards in place, and we are eager to discuss the court's suggestions with the NYPD and the city. For the sake of New York Muslims and all New Yorkers, we urge that reforms are implemented as soon as possible."

The New York City Law Department said that it will try to address the judge's concerns.

"To the extent that the court's decision is based in part on an Inspector General's report containing findings with which both the city and class plaintiffs' counsel variously disagreed, we are disappointed that the settlement was not approved as the parties originally proposed," the department added.

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