Undercover New York City police officers have conducted covert surveillance
in the last 16 months of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking
part in mass rallies and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed
in an accident, a series of videotapes show.
In glimpses and in glaring detail, the videotape images reveal the robust presence
of disguised officers or others working with them at seven public gatherings
since August 2004.
The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners. They ride
in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer in biking gear wore
a button that said, "I am a shameless agitator." She also carried
a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people present.
Beyond collecting information, some of the undercover officers or their associates
are seen on the tape having influence on events. At a demonstration last year
during the Republican National Convention, the sham arrest of a man secretly
working with the police led to a bruising confrontation between officers in
riot gear and bystanders.
Until Sept. 11, the secret monitoring of events where people expressed their
opinions was among the most tightly limited of police powers.
Provided with images from the tape, the Police Department's chief spokesman,
Paul J. Browne, did not dispute that they showed officers at work but said that
disguised officers had always attended such gatherings - not to investigate
political activities but to keep order and protect free speech. Activists, however,
say that police officers masquerading as protesters and bicycle riders distort
their messages and provoke trouble.
The pictures of the undercover officers were culled from an unofficial archive
of civilian and police videotapes by Eileen Clancy, a forensic video analyst
who is critical of the tactics. She gave the tapes to The New York Times. Based
on what the individuals said, the equipment they carried and their almost immediate
release after they had been arrested amid protesters or bicycle riders, The
Times concluded that at least 10 officers were incognito at the events.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, officials at all levels of government considered
major changes in various police powers. President Bush acknowledged last Saturday
that he has secretly permitted the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without
a warrant on international telephone calls and e-mail messages in terror investigations.
In New York, the administration of Mayor Michael
R. Bloomberg persuaded a federal judge in 2003 to enlarge the Police Department's
authority to conduct investigations of political, social and religious groups.
"We live in a more dangerous, constantly changing world," Police Commissioner
W. Kelly said.
Before then, very few political organizations or activities were secretly investigated
by the Police Department, the result of a 1971 class-action lawsuit that charged
the city with abuses in surveillance during the 1960's. Now the standard for
opening inquiries into political activity has been relaxed, full authority to
begin surveillance has been restored to the police and federal courts no longer
require a special panel to oversee the tactics.
Mr. Browne, the police spokesman, said the department did not increase its
surveillance of political groups when the restrictions were eased. The powers
obtained after Sept. 11 have been used exclusively "to investigate and
thwart terrorists," Mr. Browne said. He would not answer specific questions
about the disguised officers or describe any limits the department placed on
surveillance at public events.
Jethro M. Eisenstein, one of the lawyers who brought the lawsuit 34 years ago,
said: "This is a level-headed Police Department, led by a level-headed
police commissioner. What in the world are they doing?"
For nearly four decades, civil liberty advocates and police officials have
fought over the kinds of procedures needed to avoid excessive intrusion on people
expressing their views, to provide accountability in secret police operations
and to assure public safety for a city that has been the leading American target
To date, officials say no one has complained of personal damage from the information
collected over recent months, but participants in the protests, rallies and
other gatherings say the police have been a disruptive presence.
Ryan Kuonen, 32, who took part in a "ride of silence" in memory of
a dead cyclist, said that two undercover officers - one with a camera - subverted
the event. "They were just in your face," she said. "It made
what was a really solemn event into something that seemed wrong. It made you
feel like you were a criminal. It was grotesque."
Ms. Clancy, a founder of I-Witness Video, a project that collected hundreds
of videotapes during the Republican National Convention that were used in the
successful defense of people arrested that week, has assembled videotape of
other public events made by legal observers, activists, bystanders and police
She presented examples in October at a conference of defense lawyers. "What
has to go on is an informed discussion of policing tactics at public demonstrations,
and these images offer a window into the issues and allow the public to make
up their own mind," Ms. Clancy said. "How is it possible for police
to be accountable when they infiltrate events and dress in the garb of protesters?"
The videotapes that most clearly disclosed the presence of the disguised officers
began in August 2004. What happened before that is unclear.
Among the events that have drawn surveillance is a monthly bicycle ride called
Critical Mass. The Critical Mass rides, which have no acknowledged leadership,
take place in many cities around the world on the last Friday of the month,
with bicycle riders rolling through the streets to promote bicycle transportation.
Relations between the riders and the police soured last year after thousands
of cyclists flooded the streets on the Friday before the Republican National
Convention. Officials say the rides cause havoc because the participants refuse
to obtain a permit. The riders say they can use public streets without permission
from the government.
In a tape made at the April 29 Critical Mass ride, a man in a football jersey
is seen riding along West 19th Street with a group of bicycle riders to a police
blockade at 10th Avenue. As the police begin to handcuff the bicyclists, the
man in the jersey drops to one knee. He tells a uniformed officer, "I'm
on the job." The officer in uniform calls to a colleague, "Louie -
he's under." A second officer arrives and leads the man in the jersey -
hands clasped behind his back - one block away, where the man gets back on his
bicycle and rides off.
That videotape was made by a police officer and was recently turned over by
prosecutors to Gideon Oliver, a lawyer representing bicycle riders arrested
Another arrest that appeared to be a sham changed the dynamics of a demonstration.
On Aug. 30, 2004, during the Republican National Convention, a man with vivid
blond hair was filmed as he stood on 23rd Street, holding a sign at a march
of homeless and poor people. A police lieutenant suddenly moved to arrest him.
Onlookers protested, shouting, "Let him go." In response, police officers
in helmets and with batons pushed against the crowd, and at least two other
people were arrested.
The videotape shows the blond-haired man speaking calmly with the lieutenant.
When the lieutenant unzipped the man's backpack, a two-way radio could be seen.
Then the man was briskly escorted away, unlike others who were put on the ground,
plastic restraints around their wrists. And while the blond-haired man kept
his hands clasped behind his back, the tape shows that he was not handcuffed
The same man was videotaped a day earlier, observing the actress Rosario Dawson
as she and others were arrested on 35th Street and Eighth Avenue as they filmed
"This Revolution," a movie that used actual street demonstrations
as a backdrop. At one point, the blond-haired man seemed to try to rile bystanders.
After Ms. Dawson and another actress were placed into a police van, the blond-haired
man can be seen peering in the window. According to Charles Maol, who was working
on the film, the blond-haired man is the source of a voice that is heard calling:
"Hey, that's my brother in there. What do you got my brother in there for?"
After Mr. Browne was sent photographs of the people involved in the convention
incidents and the bicycle arrests, he said, "I am not commenting on descriptions
of purported or imagined officers."
The federal courts have long held that undercover officers can monitor political
activities for a "legitimate law enforcement purpose." While the police
routinely conduct undercover operations in plainly criminal circumstances -
the illegal sale of weapons, for example - surveillance at political events
is laden with ambiguity. To retain cover in those settings, officers might take
part in public dialogue, debate and demonstration, at the risk of influencing
others to alter opinions or behavior.
The authority of the police to conduct surveillance of First Amendment activities
has been shaped over the years not only by the law but also by the politics
of the moment and the perception of public safety needs.
In the 1971 class-action lawsuit, the city acknowledged that the Police Department
had used infiltrators, undercover agents and fake news reporters to spy on yippies,
civil rights advocates, antiwar activists, labor organizers and black power
A former police chief said the department's intelligence files contained a
million names of groups and individuals - more in just the New York files than
were collected for the entire country in a now-discontinued program of domestic
spying by the United States Army around the same time. In its legal filings,
the city said any excesses were aberrational acts.
The case, known as Handschu for the lead plaintiff, was settled in 1985 when
the city agreed to extraordinary new limits in the investigation of political
organizations, among them the creation of an oversight panel that included a
civilian appointed by the mayor. The police were required to have "specific
information" that a crime was in the works before investigating such groups.
The Handschu settlement also limited the number of police officers who could
take part in such investigations and restricted sharing information with other
Over the years, police officials made no secret of their belief that the city
had surrendered too much power. Some community affairs officers were told they
could not collect newspaper articles about political gatherings in their precincts,
said John F. Timoney, a former first deputy commissioner who is now the chief
of police in Miami.
The lawyers who brought the Handschu lawsuit say that such concerns were exaggerated
to make limits on police behavior seem unreasonable. The city's concessions
in the Handschu settlement, while similar to those enacted during that era in
other states and by the federal government, surpassed the ordinary limits on
"It was to remedy what was a very egregious violation of people's First
Amendment rights to free speech and assemble," said Jeremy Travis, the
deputy police commissioner for legal affairs from 1990 to 1994.
At both the local and federal level, many of these reforms effectively discouraged
many worthy investigations, Chief Timoney said. "The police departments
screw up and we go to extremes to fix it," Chief Timoney said. "In
going to extremes, we leave ourselves vulnerable."
Mr. Travis, who was on the Handschu oversight panel, said that intelligence
officers understood they could collect information, provided they had good reason.
"A number of courts decided there should be some mechanism set up to make
sure the police didn't overstep the boundary," said Mr. Travis, who is
now the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It was complicated
finding that boundary." The authority to determine the boundary would be
handed back to the Police Department after the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Sept. 12, 2002, the deputy police commissioner for intelligence, David Cohen,
wrote in an affidavit that the police should not be required to have a "specific
indication" of a crime before investigating. "In the case of terrorism,
to wait for an indication of crime before investigating is to wait far too long,"
Mr. Cohen also took strong exception to limits on police surveillance of public
In granting the city's request, Charles S. Haight, a federal judge in Manhattan,
ruled that the dangers of terrorism were "perils sufficient to outweigh
any First Amendment cost."
New guidelines say undercover agents may be used to investigate "information
indicating the possibility of unlawful activity"- but also say that commanders
should consider whether the tactics are "warranted in light of the seriousness
of the crime."
Ms. Clancy said those guidelines offered no clear limits on intrusiveness at
political or social events. Could police officers take part in pot-luck suppers
of antiwar groups, buy drinks for activists? Could they offer political opinions
for broadcast or publication while on duty but disguised as civilians?
Mr. Browne, the police spokesman, declined to answer those questions. Nor would
he say how often - if ever - covert surveillance at public events has been approved
by the deputy commissioner for intelligence, as the new guidelines require.