In a five-page memo issued this month by New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, guidelines have been issued for the use of social media sites during investigations. The officers will be using Department laptops that cannot be traced to the NYPD. The most controversial aspect of the memo is that it permits the creation of fake aliases to probe alleged illegal activity on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. An attorney for the ACLU, however, says that police activity on the internet is “ripe for abuse.” And the perceived problem arises because we are not writing on a clean slate in this area.
Opponents of the policy point out, for example, that it can easily lead to illegal investigations of political and other protected activity. They point to the Handschu Agreement, a consent decree (since modified somewhat) that arose out of the NYPD’s illegal investigation of the Black Panther Party in the 1970’s; that agreement regulates NYPD behavior regarding investigations of political activity. Specifically, the NYPD was accused of monitoring the behavior of anti-war protestors and others solely based upon expressions of free speech that were protected under the First Amendment. More recently, allegations have surfaced involving the Department’s investigation of Muslims in the wake of 9/11, potentially infringing on freedom of religion.
Another aspect of the memo that gives rise to concern is the history of NYPD officers when it comes to using the internet, and specifically their use of social media sites. Just last month, in fact, it was announced that 17 NYPD officers were disciplined as a result of their participation in a racist Facebook page entitled No More West Indian Day Parade Detail.
The real problem, as we see it, is not necessarily the methods by which the NYPD investigates suspected criminal behavior. Rather, it stems from the conduct of NYPD itself, which appears to become sidetracked on a regular basis into conducting investigations that threaten our civil liberties. And it is exacerbated by the conduct of individual officers, who allow their indiscriminate (yet discriminatory) racist and political views to affect which groups and which people to target for an investigation.
George Vomvolakis Law Offices
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New York, NY 10016