Checks, balances & the NYPD

Kudos to the City Council for kicking off the latest round of a long-running debate about how to strike the right balance between keeping New York safe and guarding our rights to privacy and free speech. And shame on the NYPD for responding to legitimate questions about their surveillance strategies with scorn and insults.

The NYPD is using our tax dollars to bulk up on cutting-edge surveillance tools that can trick, trap and eavesdrop on terrorists and gangsters. Council members, in keeping with their oath of office, are asking legitimate questions we should all want answered about how the new gadgets and procedures will be used.

A proposed law introduced by Dan Garodnick, Vanessa Gibson and a dozen other members would require the NYPD to explain what new technology it has, and how it will be used. The NYPD should answer quickly and clearly before the whole business ends up in court.

We all understand that the NYPD is under almost unimaginable pressure to safeguard New York from criminals, terrorists and sociopaths. The cops have developed and purchased state-of-the-art spy tools that range from unobjectionable to deeply unsettling.

Nobody complains about ShotSpotter, which uses sensors embedded in rooftops and light posts to calculate with tight accuracy the source of gunfire — in many cases, even before anybody calls 911.

It’s a different matter when it comes to the use of Stingrays, towers that are capable of picking up the location of individual cell phones — and in some cases track the emails, text messages and calls made on them — all without any involvement by phone companies like Verizon or AT&T.

As the New York Civil Liberties Union noted last year, “the NYPD disclosed it used Stingrays nearly 1,016 times between 2008 and May of 2015 without a written policy and following a practice of obtaining only lower-level court orders rather than warrants.”

The use of the Stingray was only disclosed because the NYCLU invoked the Freedom of Information Law to get details of what was going on. My organization, NY1 News, is in the middle of a lawsuit against the NYPD, which has refused to give news organizations footage from its new body cameras that thousands of patrol officers will be using.

I was surprised to read that John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterintelligence, told a radio interviewer: “The activists have in their mind this idea that police departments in cities like New York run massive surveillance programs targeting civilians for no reason. Now, that’s nutty.”

Actually, it’s not. In 1971, activists sued the NYPD for infiltrating political organizations and, in some cases, secretly recording and disrupting their activities. The class action, known as Handschu (after Manhattan activist Barbara Handschu) dragged on for more than a decade and led to the creation of a panel in 1985 to bar surveillance, secret joining of organizations and other conduct unless the cops have specific reason to suspect a crime will be committed.

In 2003, as protesters took to the streets in opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq, the NYPD was back in court, accused of violating the Handschu decree. It turned out that cops were asking arrested demonstrators questions including: “How do you feel about the war? Do you hate George W. Bush? Have you been to any protests in the past? What is your opinion on the war in Iraq? Do you do any kind of political work?”

The court issued updated guidelines to prohibit that kind of snooping. But a decade later, NYPD officers were joining and visiting mosques and student associations, recording names and cell phone numbers — a practice that ended soon after civil liberties groups complained that Handschu was being violated again.

Every decade since the 1970s, we have needed to rein in the NYPD. This new case, involving technology, continues that tug-of-war.

“I have reached out to the NYPD repeatedly to help us make the bill into something that allows public engagement, without revealing truly sensitive details,” Garodnick told me. “Rather than mark up the bill, they have booked TV appearances critiquing the language, and calling the initiative ‘insane.’ ”

That won’t do. The NYPD and the Council should collaborate on a new or modified Handschu-style panel — perhaps including the city’s public advocate to represent civil liberties concerns and the controller, who has to approve technology purchases — and settle on a process that strikes the right balance between safety and the precious liberties we are trying to protect.