A group of Black Lives Matter activists in Clarkstown, N.Y., is suing the town and chief of police over claims of racial profiling and illegal surveillance. A local prosecutor is denying the allegations, however, despite black-and-white evidence presented in the suit.
Speaking with NBC New York on Aug. 29, Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe refuted claims that Clarkstown police and its entities violated activists’ constitutional rights by targeting them with illegal surveillance. The city’s police sergeant and a joint venture of the DA’s office and Clarkstown police known as the Strategic Investigations Unit are among those named in the suit.
Zugibe maintained that the SIU doesn’t partake in illegal surveillance, as BLM members have alleged.
“This unit does not engage in any type of surveillance,” Zugibe told the news station. “They are engaged in what we call ‘passive surveillance’ or ‘monitoring’ [via] publicly available social media. Period, end of story.”
The DA added that the goal of the SIU was to protect BLM and another activist group, We the People, whose members had their personal information run through a police database, according to NBC New York.
“[SIU’s] involvement with Black Lives Matter wasn’t to surveil in any manner, but to make sure there were no threats against them at the time,” he said.
Classified reports from the SIU tell a different story, though.
Documents attached to the suit revealed that the unit regularly monitored the social media profiles of BLM members using “geofence” technology in hopes of gathering info on anyone who may be involved with the activist group and its activities. Members with both BLM and We the People were targeted as part of a violence reduction strategy by the Clarkstown PD, which lumped activists in with gang members, terrorists and violent criminals.
“The Clarkstown Police Department attended peaceful Black Lives Matter rallies intimidating the plaintiffs by positioning snipers on rooftop,” the lawsuit alleges. “[BLM] members were also targeted by the Clarkstown Police Department’s SIU without reasonable suspicion that they individually, or as a group, were planning or actually engaged in any criminal activity.”
The suit also cites one of the SIU’s internal documents as evidence of the criminality and racial bias in its geofencing tactics.
Local BLM activist Everett Newton told NBC New York it hurt to be sandwiched in with criminals.
“To be looked at as terrorists and drug runners — that’s an indictment on what we stand for,” Newton said. “They look at us and say, ‘They’re dangerous.'”
The claims laid out in the plaintiffs’ suit were bolstered by a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York from Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann, who detailed a laundry list of surveillance violations and other misconduct by the town’s police department, news site TechDirt reported.
Just last year, the American Civil Liberties Union uncovered more than 500 police agencies across the nation that were using “geofence” surveillance. The technology allows the police to select an area of a map and, in real time, source all public social media updates in those areas by searching for keywords like “protest,” “rally”or “march,” according to Gizmodo.
In the documents attached to the suit, the SIU recognizes 390 such “geofences” in areas around Rockland County.
Plaintiffs in the case are seeking punitive damages and a jury trial, the tech news site reported. They’re also asking that the Clarkstown PD revise its surveillance policies.