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Judge skeptical of police grillings

Irked by what chiefs say they didn't know

May 29, 2003

A federal judge said yesterday he found it troublesome that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly says he didn't know anti-war marchers in police custody were being questioned about their political activities.

U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. also decried Kelly's assertions that he and Deputy Commissioner David Cohen knew nothing about the "debriefing form" used in the questioning earlier this year. He compared those remarks to the surprise that actor Claude Rains' character expressed in "Casablanca" when told there was gambling in Rick's Cafe - just as the character was handed his winnings for the night.

A pilot who returns from a mission is debriefed, Haight said. A defector is debriefed by agents, he added.

"These persons arrested were in police custody," he said.

Haight expressed his skepticism during a hearing sought by attorneys representing the so-called Handschu plaintiffs, named for a class of defendants who sued the police years ago over abuses in investigating legal political activity.

The attorneys asked Haight to reconsider a decision earlier this year in which he discontinued Handschu protections at the urgings of police, who said Handschu hampered the department's ability to investigate possible terrorist activities.

In an affidavit filed yesterday, Deputy John Cutter, commanding officer of the department's Intelligence Division, said he "requested that the demonstration debriefing form be prepared for use by intel officers."

"Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen was aware of the fact that arrestees would be asked questions similar to those on the debriefing form; he was unaware of the form itself," Cutter said.

Those questions included what schools the protesters attended; what organizations they belonged to; who they attended the demonstrations with; whether they had traveled to the Middle East or Africa; why they attended the demonstrations; and what political party they belonged to.

Gail Donoghue, the city's special assistant corporation counsel, said Cohen told her he knew of the questions, but she added that she did not know whether Kelly did.

Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Michael O'Looney did not respond to a call seeking comment.

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© 2003 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.