The NYPD is still flouting legal guidelines governing its investigations of political activity, according to a report released Tuesday by the Office of the Inspector General for the department, which is part of the Department of Investigation.
The OIG report found the NYPD's Intelligence Unit frequently violates what are known as the Handschu Guidelines, court-ordered rules designed to prevent police from conducting blanket surveillance on political groups in the city. The NYPD has conducted numerous operations in this vein since 9/11—particularly targeting Muslim groups. Gothamist documented the department's attempt to infiltrate a Muslim student group at Brooklyn College.
"This investigation demonstrates a failure by NYPD to follow rules governing the timing and authorizations of surveillance of political activity," said Mark Peters, commissioner for the Department of Investigation, in a statement accompanying the report.
In order to conduct an investigation of political activity (of a group or individual), the NYPD's Intelligence Unit is supposed to seek authorization from senior NYPD officials, including the deputy commissioner for intelligence. Police have an 180-day window in which to conduct an authorized investigation, after which they are supposed to seek re-authorization to continue the investigation. But the OIG found that in more than half of the cases it examined, the NYPD continued its investigation without reauthorization, on average carrying on an unauthorized follow-up investigation for 22 days without receiving the green light from police officials. The OIG also found that requests to extend investigations routinely lacked "fact-specific" reasons describing the need for an extension.
The department behaved similarly in its use of confidential informants and undercover officers, failing to provide key information justifying their use.
In a contortion that would have made Lon Chaney proud, the NYPD issued its own press release, under the headline "Inspector General's Audit commends NYPD's efforts to protect New York City from terrorism." The release makes no mention of the report's criticisms.
The OIG report does note in as-required-by-law-post-9-11 fashion that the NYPD has protected New York from terrorism "with remarkable and commendable success," but it is not a report about the NYPD's efforts to "protect" the city. Here's the full paragraph the "commendable" quote is pulled from:
[P]rotecting New York City residents from terrorism is a prime responsibility of NYPD - one it has done with remarkable and commendable success. Terrorism is a real threat that requires constant vigilance; it does not require, however, that NYPD fall short of adhering to well-accepted rules for protecting the rights of the citizens it is sworn to protect. Indeed, there was nothing in the documents that OIG-NYPD reviewed to suggest that adherence to the rules would have harmed the investigations at issue or hindered vigorous anti-terrorism enforcement.
The OIG also found that the NYPD kept insufficient records, with filings frequently lacking information like signatures and dates.
Because the report was focused on administrative compliance, its authors did not look at who the NYPD is targeting. The authors did note that the cases examined for the report almost exclusively (95 percent of the time) focused on individuals with personal or professional connections to Islam or a Muslim organization.
In its response to the report, the NYPD challenged the OIG claim that it engaged in unauthorized investigations, arguing that the agency had only demonstrated that there was a lag between expiration and reauthorization of various investigations, not that the NYPD had continued its investigations while it awaited reauthorization.
"At no point during its inquiry did OIG ask the NYPD to determine whether in fact investigative activity had occurred during that time interval," the NYPD said. "Thus, in those cases that they reviewed, OIG had no factual basis for declaring that 'unauthorized activity' or 'unauthorized conduct' inevitably occurred."
The NYPD response also notes that the department does not track individuals by religion and criticized the OIG for referencing the religion of the Intelligence Unit's targets as an attempt "to reach for something with uncertain purpose."
Nicole Turso, a spokesperson for DOI, stated that DOI had, in fact, determined the NYPD conducted investigations after the expiration of authorization. "The NYPD’s assertion is false," she wrote in an email to Gothamist. "DOI specifically asked numerous times, including in writing, whether NYPD engaged in investigative activity after authorizations had expired, and NYPD confirmed that investigative activity did continue during this period.
The OIG report includes a range of what seem like no-brainer recommendations, including instituting a formal system for tracking deadlines, processing extension requests before investigation authorizations expire, and providing detailed written justifications for continuing investigations. These policy changes and several others would be consolidated into a "unified handbook," which the department could then continue to ignore.
In the NYPD release, Commissioner Bill Bratton offered a unique TL;DR interpretation of the OIG's report. "It has always been our assertion that we will go where the evidence takes us, and we will do so within the guidelines of the law," he said in a statement. "I am very pleased the Inspector General's audit has independently confirmed this to be true."