Undercover officers in the New York police department infiltrated small groups of Black Lives Matter activists and gained access to their text messages, according to newly released NYPD documents obtained by the Guardian.
The records, produced in response to a freedom of information lawsuit led by New York law firm Stecklow & Thompson, provide the most detailed picture yet of the sweeping scope of NYPD surveillance during mass protests over the death of Eric Garner in 2014 and 2015. Lawyers said the new documents raised questions about NYPD compliance with city rules.
The documents, mostly emails between undercover officers and other NYPD officials, follow other disclosures that the NYPD regularly filmed Black Lives Matter activists and sent undercover personnel to protests. The NYPD has not responded to the Guardian’s request for comment or interview.
Emails show that undercover officers were able to pose as protesters even within small groups, giving them extensive access to details about protesters’ whereabouts and plans. In one email, an official notes that an undercover officer is embedded within a group of seven protesters on their way to Grand Central Station. This intimate access appears to have helped police pass as trusted organizers and extract information about demonstrations. In other emails, officers share the locations of individual protesters at particular times. The NYPD emails also include pictures of organizers’ group text exchanges with information about protests, suggesting that undercover officials were either trusted enough to be allowed to take photos of activists’ phones or were themselves members of a private planning group text.
“That text loop was definitely just for organizers, I don’t know how that got out,” said Elsa Waithe, a Black Lives Matter organizer. “Someone had to have told someone how to get on it, probably trusting someone they had seen a few times in good faith. We clearly compromised ourselves.”
Keegan Stephan, a regular attendee of the Grand Central protests in 2014 and 2015, said information about protesters’ whereabouts was limited to a small group of core organizers at that time. “I feel like the undercover was somebody who was or is very much a part of the group, and has access to information we only give to people we trust,” said Stephan, who has been assisting attorneys with a lawsuit to obtain the documents on behalf of plaintiff James Logue, a protester. “If you’re walking to Grand Central with a handful of people for an action, that’s much more than just showing up to a public demonstration – that sounds like a level of friendship.”
Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and professor at John Jay College, agreed that it would not be easy for an undercover officer to join a small group of protesters and hear their plans. “It would be pretty amazing that they would be able to get into the core group in such a short window of time,” said Giacalone. “This could have been going on a while before for these people to get so close to the inner circle.”
The NYPD documents also included a handful of pictures and one short video taken at Grand Central Station demonstrations. Most are pictures of crowds milling about or taking part in demonstrations. In one picture of a small group of activists, the NYPD identifies an individual in a brown jacket as the “main protester”. These images of protesters are reminiscent of those taken by undercover transit police, who were also deployed to Black Lives Matter protests in Grand Central Station in 2015.