[News] The NYPD's Young Lords Records of Its Own Misbehavior Have Mysteriously Vanished

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 20 15:12:45 EDT 2016


  The NYPD's Records of Its Own Misbehavior Have Mysteriously Vanished

Nick Pinto

Friday, May 20, 2016

Just as lawyers for New York City are preparing for a hearing in federal 
court to close the books on lawsuits over the New York Police 
Department's secret and illegal surveillance of Muslims, a lesser-known 
lawsuit that concluded Monday reveals that the police department's 
records of its own ugly history of unconstitutional domestic 
surveillance, which it was required to preserve for posterity, have 
mysteriously gone missing.

Younger New Yorkers are probably familiar with the NYPD's Muslim 
surveillance program <http://www.ap.org/Index/AP-In-The-News/NYPD>, its 
infiltration of Occupy Wall Street with undercover officers 
and its unconstitutional mass-arrests of protesters and bystanders 
<http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390444004704578031050540111858> during 
the 2004 Republican National Convention. But the history of NYPD 
surveillance and harassment of citizens based on their political, 
religious, or ethnic identities stretches back considerably farther. In 
the early years of the last century, special NYPD squads targeted 
Italians, anarchists, and communists. With the onset of the Great 
Depression, the NYPD's "Radical Bureau" took up the surveillance of 
communist New Yorkers. By the 1960s, the Radical Bureau had been renamed 
Bureau of Special Services, and it was going after groups that included 
CORE <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congress_of_Racial_Equality>, the 
ACLU, the NAACP, and the Black Panthers.

Some of the people targeted for political surveillance by the NYPD filed 
a class action suit in 1971, alleging that the police behavior violated 
constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, their right to due 
process, and their protection from unreasonable search and seizure. The 
suit dragged on for more than a decade, ultimately resulting in a 
consent decree named after the lead plaintiff, Barbara Handschu. The 
Handschu decree, which still governs NYPD behavior today, in modified 
form, is best known for committing the police not to investigate 
anyone's political, ideological, or religious behavior unless they have 
reason to believe that person is engaged in a crime. But another section 
of the consent decree also required the NYPD to follow the New York City 
Charter and Freedom of Information Law with regard to its archive of 
surveillance files.

Judge Charles S. Haight Jr., who presided over the Handschu decree, 
specified that this meant that:

    The upshot of the settlement is that no intelligence or political
    files, pre-1955 or post-1955, can be destroyed without the express
    approval of the City's commissioner of records and information
    services, who is specifically charged by the Charter to base his
    determination 'on the potential administrative, fiscal legal,
    research, or historical value of the record'.... I will not assume
    that the police commissioner would disregard the law by disposing of
    police records without seeking the requisite approval.

But as the lawsuit resolved Monday reveals, that seems to be exactly 
what happened. That suit was brought by Johanna Fernandez, a history 
professor at Baruch College, who first approached the NYPD a decade ago 
as she was researching a book about another group of political activists 
from the 1960s and '70s, the Young Lords. Radical Puerto Rican 
nationalists, the Young Lords are a critical and fascinating piece of 
New York history. Inspired by the Black Panthers, the Lords combined 
militant tactics with a knack for getting things done in their 
community. Deeply embedded in Spanish Harlem, the group knew the 
neighborhood was profoundly underserved by the city. The Department of 
Sanitation was largely ignoring the area, and the streets were full of 
garbage. The Young Lords collected the trash, put it in the middle of 
the streets, and set it on fire. For weeks. Pretty soon, trash 
collection in the barrio improved markedly.

Working with doctors, the Lords tested East Harlem children and found 
lead-poisoning levels through the roof. They hammered the issue in the 
press, ultimately occupying the offices of the Department of Health. In 
1970, the city created a new bureau to address lead poisoning. The Young 
Lords led the campaign to improve conditions at Lincoln Hospital in the 
South Bronx, a hospital so bad that rats were sometimes seen in the 
emergency room. When hospital officials ignored demands for change, the 
Lords conspired with doctors and nurses to seize the hospital.  On July 
14 of 1970, they did just that, running the hospital for 24 hours until 
they had negotiated a series of reforms from the city.

Throughout, the NYPD was keeping close tabs on the group. "[The police] 
were provocateurs," says Fernandez. "They engaged in an enormous amount 
of surveillance of the group. And they had members of the NYPD who came 
to the office of the Young Lords on Madison Avenue and asked to join the 
organization for the purposes of undermining the work of the group."

In researching her book, Fernandez recovered a small treasury of 
<https://www.scribd.com/doc/236617977/Young-Lords-Surveillance> from the 
NYPD and other law enforcement agencies related to the Young Lords — 
some of it possibly brought to light by the 1971 robbery of a 
Pennsylvania FBI office 
that exposed the FBI's COINTELPRO 
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COINTELPRO> program. But rich 
documentation of the Young Lords is hard to come by, not least of all 
because the group, aware they were being spied on and infiltrated by the 
NYPD, destroyed many of their own records to protect themselves. 
Ironically, the police surveillance that helped scuttle the Young Lords 
probably generated the most complete record of its activities.

So after her informal request to the NYPD went nowhere, Fernandez filed 
a formal request for the NYPD's records of the Young Lords through the 
Freedom of Information Law, and when that request turned up nothing, she 
sued for the records in 2014 
<http://gothamist.com/2014/08/12/nypd_spied_young_lords.php>. The 
records Fernandez had already found from other sources showed the NYPD 
had once had substantial records, and so did reviews of the intelligence 
files conducted during the Handschu agreement process. But though 
Handschu precluded the department from unlawfully destroying any of 
those records, the NYPD and the City Law Department told Judge Alice 
Schlesinger the records Fernandez wanted couldn't be found.

Neither the Municipal Records Management Division nor the NYPD could 
find any record that the Handschu material had been destroyed. The last 
time anyone outside the NYPD had scrutinized the records, in the 1980s, 
they were kept in Room 1206 at NYPD headquarters in 1 Police Plaza. The 
NYPD claims they were later transferred to a room in the Brooklyn Army 
Terminal. But searches of both those rooms by the NYPD came up empty.

In the course of the search, the police did come up with an additional 
590 documents relevant to Fernandez's request — but they were mostly 
index cards from a cataloging system that referred to the /actual 
/documents Fernandez was looking for. "The index cards point to a very 
complex and thorough web of information-gathering on the part of the 
NYPD," Fernandez says. "It's tantalizing, and it's proof that other 
documents exist."

Fernandez argued that the city's nonchalant attitude towards the missing 
records wasn't good enough, and pressed for it to widen its search. The 
city pushed back, saying Fernandez wanted them to engage in a "fishing 
expedition." In her ruling Monday, Judge Schlesinger reluctantly agreed.

    No one can be identified today who has the ability to determine
    where, if not the Handschu room, were the Room 1206 documents
    transferred. That is the problem. One I cannot solve, without, I
    believe directing the Department to go to all sorts of extremely
    burdensome lengths without any real hope or expectation that these
    documents will be found. I cannot and will not do that.

Asked for comment, a City Law Department spokesperson offered the 
following: "In response to this request for NYPD documents from 1960s 
and 1970s, the NYPD produced 590 pages of documents. The NYPD conducted 
a reasonable and good-faith search, but was unable to locate additional 
documents. We agree with the Court’s conclusion that NYPD should not be 
required to search further, as additional searching would not be likely 
to turn up the requested material."

Martin Stolar, one of the class lawyers in the Handschu case, says the 
failure to produce the records is disturbing. "What's at stake here is 
an extraordinarily important record of the uses and abuses of police 
powers against political movements, people's movements," he says. Stolar 
and the other Handschu lawyers will be back in court before Judge Haight 
on June 1 to discuss the settlement of the Muslim-surveillance lawsuits. 
"Where the documents are is not on the front burner for us at the 
moment," he says. "Once the settlement is finalized, I think we may want 
to take a look at this."

Fernandez says there's more at stake with her lawsuit than a historian's 
research. In an age of resurgent popular protest movements, from Occupy 
Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, the policing of popular movements is 
more relevant than ever. "Only when we document the systematic ways in 
which the police and government agencies have undermined social 
movements will social movements that are emerging today be able to voice 
their grievances and articulate freely their highest aspirations for a 
better society," she says. "This is about the historical record, but 
it's also about the project of democracy."

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.

Fernandez says she intends to appeal the decision.

Here's Judge Schlesinger's decision:

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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