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Citing the need to prevent future terrorist attacks, the New York City Police Department on Wednesday asked a federal judge to delete numerous provisions of a 16-year-old agreement that bans police surveillance of political activity. In court papers, the Police Department said the agreement, part of a 1985 federal consent decree known as the Handschu agreement, ties the hands of law enforcement officials attempting to investigate possible terrorist activity in the city. The department specifically referred to terrorists, such as those in the al-Qaida organization, who are adept at infiltrating mainstream American society and planning covert attacks. The Handschu agreement — named for Barbara Handschu, the lead plaintiff in Handschu v. Special Services Division, 71 Civ. 2203-CSH, a class action suit brought against the city by political groups — prohibits police surveillance of speeches, demonstrations and other political activity protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Only the Public Security Section (PSS) of the Police Department’s Intelligence Division is allowed to investigate such activities under the current agreement, and only if the department has suspicion of criminal activity. To conduct an investigation, the PSS must first obtain the permission of the Handschu Authority, a three-member commission made up of the department’s first deputy commissioner and deputy commissioner for legal matters, as well as a civilian appointed by the mayor. But under the proposed changes, submitted Wednesday to federal Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. of the Southern District of New York, any unit of the Police Department would be able to investigate political activity without suspicion of a crime. The current agreement also prohibits the department from videotaping or photographing political activities and public events unless criminal activity is expected or present, or to perform duties of public safety, such as crowd control. Under the new agreement, the department would be allowed to conduct any investigative technique deemed constitutional, which would likely include videotapes. The department also asked Haight to delete a provision of the agreement that prevents the department from sharing intelligence information related to political activity with other law enforcement agencies unless those agencies agree to be bound by the terms of Handschu. The new role of the three-member Handschu Authority would be to investigate complaints of constitutional violations. It would no longer supervise and approve investigations at every step. “The world has drastically changed since the consent decree was approved by the Court in 1985,” said Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly in a prepared statement. “Today we live in a more dangerous, constantly changing world, one with challenges and threats that were never envisioned when the Handschu guidelines were written.” Gail Donoghue of the Corporation Counsel’s office, who filed the papers on behalf of the city, said in a statement, “The City is applying to the court for a modification because it strongly believes it meets all the conditions under which a decree should be modified.” AUTHORITY TO REVIEW Haight has presided over the Handschu case from its inception and has the authority to review motions to modify the agreement. David Cohen, Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence at the Police Department, said in court papers that the department needed all its resources, not just the Intelligence Division, to investigate possible terrorist threats. He said the Handschu agreement would constrict the department’s ability to conduct numerous types of investigations, such as inquiries into whether a political group is funneling money to terrorist organizations. Cohen added the success of terrorist organizations “is due in no small measure to the freedom with which terrorists enter this country, insidiously insinuate themselves as apparent participants in American society, and engage in secret operations.” Under the new proposal, Cohen would replace the first deputy commissioner as a member of the Handschu Authority. Chris Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, described the proposed changes as “deeply troubling.” “While the NYPD should of course be investigating potential criminal or terrorist activity, it has no legitimate reason to spy on lawful political activity,” he said.

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