A Rockland County arm of Black Lives Matter has leveled a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that the Clarkstown Police Department illegally surveilled its members, using a special intelligence unit and lumping in the group with terrorists and gangs.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Wednesday, alleges that the police department and several of its officials and intelligence unit members began racially profiling Black Lives Matter’s Rockland County members by January 2015. The surveillance violated the members’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the lawsuit alleges. It is unclear whether the plaintiffs believe that the surveillance continues today.
“Defendants illegally targeted members of Black Lives Matter for surveillance based upon their race and critical commentary of the treatment of people of color by police,” the lawsuit, filed by White Plains-based lawyer William Wagstaff on behalf of the group, states. “These illegal actions are borne out of the unwarranted anxiety that the Black Lives Matter movement causes mainstream society.”
“The Clarkstown Police Department attended peaceful Black Lives Matter rallies intimidating the plaintiffs by positioning snipers on rooftops,” the suit also claims. It adds, “Each member was illegally surveilled when the SIU established electronic ‘Geofences’ and placed ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ under the same surveillance criteria as ‘Terrorism,’ ‘Gangs,’ ‘Violence,’ ‘Heroin Initiative’ and ‘Police Riots.’”
The 17-page complaint does not lay out exact methods of police surveillance.
The complaint also alleges that the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office, which was overseeing the unit’s intelligence work, sent an email in 2016 to the Clarkstown police that read in part, “‘I mentioned before, you really should not have Black Lives Matter listed as a target for surveillance.’”
Rockland County DA Thomas Zugibe has repeatedly denied that the intelligence unit engaged in illegal surveillance, according to local news reports. On Wednesday, in response to the Law Journal, a spokeswoman for Zugibe said in a statement, “An exhaustive review of the Strategic Intelligence Unit has determined that this unit never engaged in any racial profiling or unlawful surveillance. The allegations against the highly skilled law enforcement professionals who staff this specialized unit are false and totally without merit.”
Reached by phone, Lino Sciarretta, the town attorney for Clarkstown, declined to comment. He said he hadn’t yet seen the complaint.
The lawsuit asks for an injunction stopping Clarkstown, a town of more than 80,000 in the Hudson Valley, from engaging in illegal surveillance. It also asks for an order that would disband the department’s special intelligence unit unless it adopts “Handschu” guidelines. Handschu refers to New York City Police Department guidelines that resulted from a long-running federal suit focused on New York City police surveillance of political groups.
The Black Lives Matter action also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
According to the complaint, on or about April 17, 2013, Rockland County and Clarkstown entered into an inter-municipal agreement to create an entity known as the Rockland County Intelligence Led Policing and Prosecution to monitor, collect and share data regarding criminal activity.
It also says that later, town supervisor George Hoehmann sent a letter to federal law enforcement asking for an investigation into racial profiling by the Clarkstown Police Department.
In addition, the complaint alleges that the intelligence unit in 2015 conducted surveillance on “We The People,” a different group focused on African-Americans’ rights in Rockland County. The group, according to the complaint, was planning to put on a play depicting a white police officer shooting an off-duty black officer.
“I hope not just the town of Clarkstown, but neighboring municipalities, stop targeting African-American groups that they assume are anti-police, and I hope they only pursue leads and go after individuals or groups that they believe are involved in criminal activity,” Wagstaff said on Wednesday in a phone interview.