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Red Squad Returns

Ann Schneider Jul 4, 2003

The revelation that the NYPD was using a “Demonstration Debriefing Form” to interrogate anti-war demonstrators recently breathed new life into the legal fight against the local Red Squad.

The uncontroverted facts couldn’t have been more dramatic: On April 10, two days after the city largely prevailed on its motion to do away with the Handschu injunction, which prohibits police from spying on purely political activities, this form became public and proved the plaintiffs’ contention that the NYPD wanted to go back to the bad old days of political spying and manipulation.

The form reads “Criminal Intelligence Section Demonstration Debriefing Form,” and asks for “Organization Name,” “Organization Position,” “School Name” and “Prior Demonstration History.” Acting quickly to minimize public outcry, the NYPD said on April 10 that a database created to store this debriefing information had already been destroyed.

The Handschu settlement was a 1985 legal victory by groups like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the Yippees and the women’s movement, who suspected the NYPD of infiltrating and disrupting their movements. It stipulated that police could not monitor or investigate political activities unless they had evidence that a crime was about to be committed.

The City sought to ease these restrictions in 2002, saying Handschu was “unworkable in a context of terrorism.” After losing some arguments before Judge Charles Haight, the plaintiffs’ counsel entered into an agreement where current FBI guidelines on spying were allowed to replace the more stringent Handschu guidelines.

The loss was in the enforceability of the loosened guidelines. The former Handschu injunction allowed the city to be charged with contempt of court if it violated its provisions. Loosened Handschu guidelines relegated victims of illegal surveillance to starting a whole new lawsuit, a costly proposition since constitutional violations don’t always result in monetary awards.

Then came the revelation of this form. It corroborated activists’ accounts that they had been questioned by police about their political beliefs, an obviously unconstitutional practice. It also undercut the city’s constant refrain, “Trust us. Look how good we’ve been in the past.”

To these claims, Judge Charles Haight literally quoted from Casablanca and said he was “shocked, shocked” to find this state of facts, after he’d given in to the city’s request for modification. He pressed the city’s lawyer Gail Donoghue to explain the purpose of the form, and to answer why it bore two logos: that of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division and that of a previously unknown agency called the “New York New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” part of the Executive Office of the President of the United States. Lamely, the city proffered the excuse that the two agencies were sharing office space. Judge Haight then remarked, “Well, I’m familiar with the concept of sharing space, but it’s an odd way to order stationery.”

Watch now for the Judge’s decision whether or not to grant the plaintiffs’ request to restore the enforceability provisions of the Handschu agreement.

The National Lawyers Guild, NYC Chapter, may be reached at (212) 679-6018. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of the organization as a whole.