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A federal judge on Thursday reprimanded the New York City Police Department for interrogating war protesters and ordered that departmental rules governing police surveillance of political groups be placed under the court’s supervision. “These recent events reveal an NYPD in some need of discipline,” wrote Southern District of New York Judge Charles S. Haight. The ruling was something of an about-face for Haight, who earlier this year all but released the police from an 18-year-old federal consent decree that limited political surveillance so the department could more easily investigate terrorism. Under the judge’s most recent order, the department’s new surveillance guidelines formally replace the decree’s old rules, known as the Handschu Guidelines, rather than existing outside the court order. Violations of the new rules that “rise to a constitutional level” could now subject the city to sanctions for contempt of court, the judge said. Haight said the increased oversight was warranted because of “operational ignorance on the part of the NYPD’s highest officials” with respect to the interrogation of protesters arrested during a Feb. 15 rally against military action in Iraq. Though the Police Department claims the protesters were only asked basic questions from a “debriefing form,” 12 people submitted affidavits saying they were asked politically charged questions including: “Do you hate George W. Bush?” “Don’t you think it was necessary for us to get involved in World War II?” and “Do you think anything would be different if Al Gore were elected?” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said neither he nor Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen knew about the “debriefing” form, but Judge Haight said that “the two commissioners should have known.” Though Kelly told reporters the interrogations were not unconstitutional, he immediately suspended the “debriefing” practice. The judge said in Handschu v. Special Services Division, 71 Civ. 2203, that the prospect of a contempt order for violating the U.S. Constitution “should not unduly trouble the NYPD, which I will assume is not engaged in thinking up ways to violate the Constitution.” Haight also said he found “debriefing” to be “an odd choice of words” to describe the arrests and interrogations, one of which allegedly lasted 15 hours. “The demonstrators taken into custody were not pilots returned from a mission or government officials returned from abroad, giving reports to their comrades in arms or bureaucratic superiors in the ordinary course of public service,” the judge wrote. However, the judge did say that he “did not accept” claims from civil liberties attorneys that the Police Department was in any way “scheming in bad faith to resurrect the odious Red Squad,” whose investigations of political groups were the basis of the original Handschu decree. Political plaintiffs, including Buffalo, N.Y., attorney Barbara Handschu, dropped their claims against the police in exchange for federal oversight of political surveillance. Assistant Corporation Counsel Gail Donoghue, who represented the Police Department, said in a statement: “The City feels that the decision has not adversely impacted on the NYPD’s ability to remain proactive in the investigation and prevention of terrorism. We appreciate the meticulous effort made by the court to provide assurance that Constitutional rights are protected while at the same time preserving the NYPD’s ability to act.” POLITICAL SPEECH Civil liberties attorneys who requested the change praised the ruling, saying it would ensure that the NYPD followed its own rules regarding protected political speech. “The judge recognizes what took place for what it is, but he is most troubled that institutionally this could take place at a time when high officials would say, ‘We don’t do those things anymore,’” said Franklin Siegel, one of the attorneys who requested the modification. In agreeing to modify the Handschu decree earlier this year, Judge Haight relied primarily on affidavits from Cohen that claimed Handschu was hampering terrorism investigations. The Handschu decree required officers to obtain specific information of criminal activity before investigating a political group. Officers were also required to ask a three-member panel, called the Handschu Authority, for permission to investigate. Haight ruled in February that the decree was outdated and stripped the decree of restrictions not already defined by the Constitution, on the condition that the police adopt internal guidelines on surveillance. The judge left intact the Handschu Authority to review allegations of warrantless investigations. In deciding Thursday to bring the new surveillance guidelines under his purview, the judge said that in February he felt his order struck a “proper balance between the legitimate demands of public security and individual freedoms.” But now, he said, “Given the NYPD intelligence-gathering techniques being employed at that same time, as revealed by the present record, I no longer hold that confidence.”

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