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Why Is OWS Blanketed With NYPD Cameras -- And Are Police Breaking the Law?

Why is an overwhelmingly peaceful protest under such heavy surveillance?

On October 15, the day OWS solidarity protests broke out as far away as Australia and Japan, and thousands of people poured into Times Square, a line of NYPD TARU (Technical Assistance Response Unit) officers stood on the street, pointing handheld digital cameras at the protestors jammed behind metal barricades. The SkyWatch tactical platform unit -- a "watchtower" with tinted windows like the one that's loomed over Zuccotti Park for most of the occupation -- stood at one corner, its four cameras roving across the crowd. The whole scene unfolded under the NYPD security cameras stationed all over Times Square and in most parts of the city.

Like the massive crowd control arsenal unleashed on OWS -- riot gear, smoke bombs, rubber bullets, pepper spray, horses, metal blockades, helicopters, plastic cuffs, and the police motorcycles, cars and vans that clog the streets -- the three-tiered surveillance seemed like overkill for an overwhelmingly peaceful movement, where the occasional slur thrown at police is usually shouted down with reminders not to goad cops because they're part of the 99 percent.

It's unclear what the NYPD plans to do with footage obtained by TARU. But recording legal protest activity violates the Handschu decree, a set of legal guidelines designed to check the NYPD's historic tendency to steamroll First Amendment rights. The order emerged from a class-action lawsuit prompted by revelations that the NYPD had spent much of the 20th century and millions of dollars monitoring legal protest activity, an endeavor that generated up to a million files on such dangerous radicals as education reform groups and housing advocates. The Handschu decree prohibits investigations of legal political activity and the collection of data, including images and video of protests, unless a crime has been committed. 

The ruling has had a complicated life post-9/11, mutating in response to terrorism fears and authorities' willingness to exploit them. A judge relaxed the order in 2003 after the NYPD argued it needed more flexibility to deal with terror threats. The department promptly proved its trustworthiness by secretively shooting hundreds of hours of footage of protestors at the Republican National Convention. In 2007 the court ruled that the NYPD had repeatedly violated Handschu and tightened the guidelines, limiting videotaping to cases where there's specific evidence that a crime has taken place. 

An internal department memo sent out in 2007 instructs police to comply with the new order by only rolling the tape when "it reasonably appears that unlawful conduct is about to occur, is occurring, or has occurred during the demonstration." But Franklin Siegal, a lawyer who has spent years fighting for Handschu in court, tells AlterNet he's received multiple complaints about police videotaping OWS protesters for no good reason. 

"Your photo shouldn't be taken and made into a record if you're not engaged in anything illegal. At demonstrations with no illegal activity taking place, cameras shouldn't be on," says Siegal. 

The NYCLU has called on police commissioner Raymond Kelly to stop surveillance of the protests, citing the cameras pointed at Zuccotti Park and an incident where NYCLU representatives observed TARU members filming a peaceful march.

"This type of surveillance substantially chills protest activity and is unlawful. In light of the mayor's recognition of the peaceful nature of these protests, we call on you to stop the videotaping of lawful protest," read the letter.

Another camera has more recently been hoisted above Zuccotti Park, joining the four sitting on top of the tactical platform unit (police claim the cameras are only transmitting a live feed and do not record video). Those cameras are visible, at least. Donna Lieberman, executive director of NYCLU, told AlterNet over the phone that Zuccotti can be seen from any number of NYPD security cameras in the area, both by private cameras attached to businesses that are accessible to police and NYPD security cameras.

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