The irony couldn’t be more clear. New York City police and their union, the Police Benevolent Association, are suing the NYPD for spying on them at rallies and demonstrations held during their contract dispute with the city in the summer of 2004.
As reported on the front page of today’s New York Times,the lawsuit, whose plaintiffs include New York firefighters and other police unions, charges that the NYPD’s own surveillance of off-duty cops who attended these rallies was so heavy-handed and “intimidating” that it violated their civil rights.
The cops’ lawyer even called videotaping a form of “political harrassment.”
Talk about the cat calling the kettle black. For years activists at antiwar demos, Critical Mass bike rides and other political protests have found themselves under the heavy gaze of camera-toting TARU (Technical Assistance Response) officers seemingly recording their every move.
“For years we have complained about the NYPD videotaping protesters,” says Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has been fighting to curb police surveillance of activists since it filed its landmark Handschu case in 1971.
“It’s nice to see that police officers now agree with us,” Dunn adds. “It sure is ironic, however, how cops turn into the biggest advocates of constitutional rights when they become the targets of police misconduct.”
Following the Republican National Convention, when the NYPD even equipped a Fuji blimp with a high-powered camera to hone in on street protests, the NYCLU fired off yet another round of legal papers to challenge the blanket surveillance of political protests, along with the NYPD’s new practice of retaining tapes and photos for as long as it deems necessary.
So will this police suit help the NYCLU’s case? “Anything that makes the public more aware of the intimidating affect of police surveillance helps. When the police say it, that helps,” says Dunn.
Activists found news of the cops’ suit a bit galling, but were nevertheless pleased. “It just shows that this is too much already, if even the police are upset about it,” says Bill DiPaolo of Times Up!, the eco group that helps promote the monthly Critical Mass bike rides, which have been subject to much undercover surveillance of late.
Lately, Times Up! volunteers have taken to spying on the cops that come to spy on bikers during the mass rides. “We videotape them videotaping us. Since we’ve started doing it, we’ve noticed a significant decrease in the number of [police] who show up to videotape. But that may be
because it’s become an issue in the press,” says DiPaolo.
Perhaps the cops suing the cops should trying videotaping those cops, too.
SARAH FERGUSON writes for the Village Voice website. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org