New York City police officers in the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association have sued the city over police surveillance of their 2004 rallies to protest the pace of contract talks with the city, reports the New York Times. The union contends that police procedures at their demonstrations – many of them routinely used at war protests, antipoverty marches, and mass bike rides – were so heavy-handed that their First Amendment rights were violated. A lawyer for the city said police union members were treated no differently from hundreds of thousands of people at other gatherings, with public safety and free speech both protected.
The case echoes the complaint by activists for other causes that the city has “criminalized dissent.” It is is one of three recent legal actions in which the city has been accused of abuses of power, a charge that officials say is belied by the reality of noisy sidewalks and streets, crammed year-round with parades and rallies. At the core of all three cases are questions about the expanded powers the police were granted after the 2001 terror attacks, and how much the department needs to know about the politics of people who are expressing their views. In 2003, a federal judge eased longstanding strict limits on surveillance of political activity at the request of the city’s lawyers, who argued that the Police Department needed broader authority to fight terrorism.