The New York Police Department has dispatched undercover police officers to anti-police brutality demonstrations led by the Black Lives Matter network and other protest groups, according to court papers the department filed in a lawsuit seeking transparency about its surveillance activities.
On Thursday, the Guardian reported that NYPD legal documents show undercover officers were collecting multimedia recordings and other intelligence at protests held in Grand Central Terminal in July and possibly at those held for the police-involved death of Eric Garner in 2014.
A lawyer with the group suing the NYPD for refusing to release its protest-related records under the state Freedom of Information Law told the Guardian that the undercover officers may be blatantly violating protesters' rights. The surveillance may be a violation of the right to free speech and protection against unlawful seizure, MJ Williams, one of the group's lawyers, said in an interview.
"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," Williams said. "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."
In three sets of court documents filed in August, the NYPD confirms the existence of "pictures, videos, audio recordings, data, and metadata" gathered from Grand Central Terminal protests on July 10. BLM and other groups led actions that included a "die in" in the station that serves as a major transfer hub for regional commuter train and the MTA subway.
Other court documents contain protest-related "communications between and among NYPD undercover officers and their handlers" and the base of operations for undercover officers, according to the Guardian. John Donohue of the NYPD's intelligence bureau argued in an affidavit against release of the records, reasoning that disclosure could help "would-be criminals."
Last week, activists from the protest group NYC Shut It Down organized a demonstration in Union Square Park, following the police shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Keith Lamont Scott, in Charlotte, North Carolina. During the demonstration, there was a visible presence of uniformed NYPD officers, who were fanned out around the perimeter of the park.
Members of Copwatch NYC, distinguishable by black T-shirts that bear the group's name, were interspersed throughout the crowd of more than 100 attendees in Union Square. The group bills itself as a legal tool that helps "empower New Yorkers to safely and legally monitor and expose police misconduct and discrimination, by encouraging them to actively observe and film police encounters."
A representative of New York City's Black Lives Matter chapter did not immediately respond to Mic's request for comment.