NYPD Ignores Some Rules on Political Spying

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The New York City Police Department has guidelines to ensure its investigations of political activity don't violate constitutional rights. But a new report by the NYPD Inspector General says the department routinely ignores those guidelines, keeping probes open even after the initial authority has expired and failing to fully document the reasons for invasive undercover operations.

“Rules matter and rules matter especially in areas like this where we’re talking about constitutional rights," said Mark Peters, commissioner of the city’s Department of Investigation. "These rules were put into place to minimize the risk people’s constitutional rights would be impacted,” 

The rules stem from a 1971 federal lawsuit spurred by the department’s surveillance of political groups. The guidelines have been the subject of renewed focus in recent years after revelations of NYPD spying on Muslims.

Under the guidelines, the department has to give a reason before opening an investigation into political activities it fears could lead to criminal acts, and a special internal committee then must authorize such a probe. Preliminary investigations can last six months and must get an approved extension to go longer. Full investigations can run a year before needing an extension.

The NYPD Inspector General found more than half the department's investigations into political activity, most involving Muslims, continued even after the authorization for such a probe lapsed. And while the guidelines require the department to give specific reasons for the use of undercover officers or confidential informants, the IG found the department's written memos often use the same boilerplate language — even repeating the same typographical errors.

“Cutting and pasting is a substitute for thought, and thought needs to be brought to bear on these very intrusive investigations,” said Jethro Eisenstein, a lawyer who worked on the 1971 federal lawsuit that led to the guidelines.

In the cases it reviewed, the IG’s Office did find the NYPD had sufficient grounds to initially open the investigations in every case. An NYPD spokesman called the other issues administrative. According to a departmental response letter, the department has a new automated case tracking system that should ensure the Intelligence Bureau gets extensions before its investigative approval expires.