Judge orders NYPD to disclose surveillance records of Black Lives Matters activists

Department officials fought disclosure by arguing protesters might be connected to the Islamic State.

Demonstrators with the Black Lives Matter movement cheer as New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton leaves New York’s City Hall after a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. Bratton is leaving the nation’s largest police force, after a tenure in which he received credit for keeping crime down and navigated tension between police and minority communities. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that Bratton will retire next month to enter the private sector, although he and Bratton wouldn’t disclose details. James O’Neill, the department’s top chief, will become commissioner. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Demonstrators with the Black Lives Matter movement cheer as New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton leaves New York’s City Hall after a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. Bratton is leaving the nation’s largest police force, after a tenure in which he received credit for keeping crime down and navigated tension between police and minority communities. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that Bratton will retire next month to enter the private sector, although he and Bratton wouldn’t disclose details. James O’Neill, the department’s top chief, will become commissioner. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

A New York judge has ordered the New York Police Department to disclose records pertaining to the undercover surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists during protests following the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Protestor James Logue filed a public records request for video and audio footage taken by uniformed and plain-clothed NYPD officers of the crowds during two Grand Central Terminal protests in 2014 and 2015. The NYPD refused to comply with the request, arguing that disclosing any records would obstruct its ability to do police work.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez ruled Wednesday that NYPD assistant intelligence chief John Donahue’s claims that releasing the data would expose details of ongoing terrorism investigations.

“His speculative and conclusive claims of potential related ongoing investigations of incidents against police officers, both in New York and outside of the state and generalized references to use of materials by the ISIS or ISIL terrorists, fail to provide a causal connection to the protesters and are insufficient to state a generic risk,” Mendez wrote in his decision.

Mendez also wrote that the NYPD made “blanket assertions and fail[ed] to particularize or distinguish their surveillance or undercover techniques and records.” The judge also insisted that using redactions would sufficiently protect the department’s intelligence tactics.

News broke of NYPD’s undercover surveillance efforts in September after the department responded to the petition indicating that it had multimedia records, metadata, and recorded conversations between police officers.

The NYPD has a history of controversial surveillance programs. The department increased its surveillance operations as part of their effort to combat terrorism, but they were forced to dismantle a 9/11-era program that monitored New York’s mosques and Muslim community. Their surveillance practices continued following the police choking death of Eric Garner.

Surveillance of communities of color and their allies isn’t new. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have increased their surveillance efforts in recent years as Black Lives Matter protests sprung up across the country to bring attention to incidents of police brutality. Beyond recording, police departments have also used online data to track prominent voices in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Wednesday’s legal victory, however, could pave the way for surveillance activity to be disclosed more readily.