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Police in Clarkstown, New York illegally spied on Black Lives Matter members for at least one year according to a bombshell new federal lawsuit filed by the Black Lives Matter Global Network chapter in Rockland County, New York.
Mother Jones reports that the police department in Clarkstown, a city of about 84,000 people, created a Strategic Intelligence Unit in 2013. According to court documents, the unit was a joint effort between the department and the county District Attorney’s office “to gather intelligence on suspected criminals.” But it was this unit that used social media to spy on BLM activists even after being told to stop.
A police intelligence report out of Rockland County from November 2015 confirms this special unit used a “geofence” twice in the same month to keep tabs on the Twitter and Instagram feeds of specific people that the unit believed were working with the Black Lives Matter group. The report details that Clarkstown police employed “a social media monitoring platform and other investigatory tactics” to “search, monitor and analyze real time social media content” of surveillance targets, including suspected terrorists, gangs, and drug traffickers. Clarkstown city attorneys, who have filed another case against the police department, describe the special unit as “unlawful.”
Furthermore, Mother Jones exclusively obtained an email exchange between Peter Modafferi, former chief detective for the Rockland County DA’s office, and Sgt. Stephen Cole-Hatchard, the former head of Clarkstown’s Strategic Intelligence Unit. Modaferri writes: “Steve, I mentioned before, you really should not have Black Lives Matter listed as a target of surveillance.”
Susan Freiwald, a professor at the University of San Francisco Law School, told Mother Jones that, generally speaking, “Police should not be tracking people without legitimate suspicion that they are involved in criminal wrongdoing.” Moreover, the very nature of social media means that it would be hard to limit the reach of the police department. “Basically, police would be able to investigate the people who are running the protest and the people who are participating, keep a file on them, and keep tabs on who’s involved—and that’s not what police are supposed to be doing,” Freiwald said.
Finally, as Mother Jones points out, Black Lives Matter activists have continually been targeted by police investigations in this country. Take, for example, The Guardian's report that the NYPD was able to obtain text messages of BLM organizers. Or the eyebrow-raising news that came out of the FBI just this month: reports claimed the FBI believes “black identity extremists” are targeting law enforcement officials.