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Court Holds NYPD In Contempt For Refusing To Hand Over Documents Related To Black Live Matter Surveillance

 

The NYPD continues to extend a middle finger to every entity that isn't the NYPD. The department's long history of doing everything it can to thwart public records requesters has been discussed here several times. It's not on much better terms with its oversight, which it routinely ignores when directed to do something about its officers' routine rights violations and deployment of excessive force.

If it's not going to be accountable to the public -- either via FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) compliance or respecting the decisions of its oversight -- it's certainly not going to let the judicial branch push it around.

The NYPD has 30 days to turn over surveillance videos of Black Lives Matter protesters after a Manhattan judge ruled Wednesday that the department flouted his previous order to disclose the records.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Manuel Mendez, who issued the contempt of court ruling, stopped short of immediately imposing sanctions on the police. Instead, he said the NYPD could "purge" the contempt ruling by turning over more material related to the monitoring of protesters at Grand Central Terminal in November 2014 and January 2015 within a month.

This ruling arrives eight months after the NYPD made a mockery of an earlier court order on records disclosure, turning over nothing more than a few pieces of paper and short, blurry cell phone recording of Black Lives Matter protesters. According to Judge Mendez, the NYPD's efforts to comply with the FOIL request at the heart of the lawsuit have been "disingenuous" at best.

Undoubtedly, the NYPD has a large number of records related to its surveillance of protesters. It just doesn't want to release them. The NYPD has repeatedly engaged in surveillance of First Amendment activity. That's the sort of thing one should expect from a law enforcement agency that views protests and terrorism as two sides of the same coin. When that's your viewpoint, you get you a special operations unit that can do both: the Strategic Response Group, which, according to the Mayor, is capable of handling both protests or "attacks like those in Mumbai."

Mendez may have issued a ruling of contempt, but city lawyers aren't exactly springing into action to comply with the judge's February order. According to the city, it's still "weighing its options" and angsting away uselessly.

The city’s Law Department immediately cried foul, saying it is reviewing its legal options and is “deeply concerned with this ruling and the dilemma in which it places the city.”

“On the one hand, we are constrained by genuine security concerns from explaining publicly how disclosure could endanger the lives and safety of undercover officers,” a Law Department spokesman said. “On the other hand, we were not afforded an opportunity to explain those concerns to the court in a non-public setting.

Well, I call bullshit. There's not a court in the land that won't allow in camera hearings or ex parte submissions where the government can attempt to explain its refusal to hand over evidence or documents. I'm sure Judge Mendez would have allowed it if he thought this sort of hearing was appropriate. Chances are he would have been much more amenable to the city's request for a private explanation if it had engaged in a little more good faith effort during its search for relevant documents.

If the city returns to court with nothing more than its unearned dismay, the judge will probably start issuing sanctions. As it stands now, the NYPD has the choice of producing more responsive documents or submit sworn affidavits explaining why it can't -- or won't -- turn over more documents related to its surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters.

It's hard to imagine what sanctions will have a lasting deterrent effect on the NYPD. Everything else that's been tried hasn't produced a more accountable entity. Short of jailing some top brass, any punishment the court hands out will likely be suffered by the public, especially if it's nothing more than fines the NYPD can pay with other people's money.

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