Let’s see, NYPD: Judge is right to order release of BLM protest surveillance records

In a free and open society, it is imperative that the public know how and why the police makes its decisions and chooses to deploy its resources. That goes double for monitoring of free expression, triple if it’s with sophisticated surveillance technologies, and quadruple for the monitoring of expression against the police itself, an activity with a high potential for abuse.

We commend New York Supreme Court Justice Laurence Love for upholding that principle in siding with Amnesty International and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project to order the NYPD to turn over 2,700 pages of documents related to the facial recognition monitoring of protesters during the Black Lives Matters protests that surged through the city in 2020, or explain in detail why it can’t.

Let’s be clear here that this lawsuit isn’t about revealing sensitive tactics or stopping the NYPD from utilizing surveillance in all cases; it’s about understanding how the police utilized one specific and incredibly powerful tool on people who were in large part lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. The NYPD — which since 1985 has been operating under the Handschu consent decree to prevent unlawful monitoring of purely political activity — is free to redact the documents in keeping with longstanding Freedom of Information standards, such as to obscure information that would compromise ongoing investigations.

If it’s the case that the cops used this tool only on protesters with proper cause — for, say, those who engaged in violence or looting — then the NYPD should be all too happy to turn over the documentation to prove that it was using its powers properly.

If it is not, and facial recognition was turned on organizers or those whose speech the NYPD simply didn’t like, then it will be up to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, Commissioner Keechant Sewell, Mayor Adams and the City Council to probe the surveillance and act accordingly, including by coming up with a more robust and restrictive policy for deploying the technology. In any case, sunlight is the best disinfectant.