One Police Plaza

Debriefing Denial Leaves Questions

April 14, 2003

That great civil libertarian Ray Kelly announced last week that he had ended the department's questioning of anti-war protesters about their political affiliations.

Some benighted souls in the Intelligence Division had been asking arrested protesters who their friends were; where they attended school; what organizations they belonged to; what other marches they had participated in; what they thought about Israel and Palestinians; what they thought about the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and where they had been on that day.

Detectives then wrote the answers on a Demonstration Debriefing Form, which had a federal seal in the upper left-hand corner. The information was put into a data base, which Kelly now says will be destroyed.

At a news conference last week, Kelly said the debriefings, begun at a Feb. 15 protest, would be discontinued because concerns had been raised. Kelly did not identify the group expressing those concerns. It was the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Kelly - whose fingers control virtually every departmental detail - said that neither he nor Deputy Commissioner David Cohen of the Intelligence Division knew of the practice and that he was uncertain who had initiated it.

Asked about legal concerns - the arrested protesters say they also were denied counsel - Kelly, a graduate of St. John's law school, shrugged.

"In my judgment, it was not illegal or unconstitutional," he said.

No one's rights had been violated, Kelly explained, because the questioning was part of the arrest process, not an interrogation. He added that answering the questions "was not compulsory in any way."

Kelly cut off a reporter who tried to ask where the processing/questioning occurred. It is one thing to question a suspect at a precinct's front desk where others are present. It is another to question a suspect alone in a jail cell.

Brendan Knowlton, one of those arrested during a protest, said he was placed in a holding cell with 150 other people when he was taken to One Police Plaza.

"One by one, they took us to a smaller office," Knowlton said. "I was questioned alone by a detective. He asked me, 'Did you come alone? Are you a student? Are you a member of a student organization? Do you come to these often?'

"I said I was uncomfortable without a lawyer. The detective told me if I cooperated I could get out. There was no threat in particular but the implication was pretty clear. If we cooperated, it would expedite our handling." Knowlton said

Emilie Clark, who said she was seven months pregnant, said she spent eight hours in three police precincts, seven of those without food or water.

"I was continually bombarded with questions about the upcoming rally by five detectives who questioned me, alone, in a cell at the First Precinct. I was warned of violence for my unborn child and told there were suicide bombers and rookie cops. 'You know how they are,'" she said detectives said of the rookies.

Some police commissioners - Howard Safir comes to mind - do not care what people think of them. Ray Kelly does care.

Perhaps Kelly responded so quickly to the New York Civil Liberties Union because Cohen, the former CIA official who heads the Intelligence Division, is a well-publicized Kelly appointee. Together with former Marine Gen. Frank Libutti - who is leaving the department after only 14 months - Cohen represents the new direction of the NYPD that Kelly hopes will be his legacy.

In Cohen's short tenure, he appears to have shown little regard for individual rights.

It was Cohen who successfully sought more latitude in conducting police surveillance of political and religious groups, weakening the Handschu agreement that long had governed how the department investigated such activity.

Last week, Donna Lieberman, the New York Civil Liberties Union's executive director, said it was important for the department to disclose the source of the debriefing program "so that appropriate steps can be taken to assure that this activity not be repeated."

Although Kelly denied he or Cohen knew of the situation, his denial was vague, leaving many questions.

For example: Did either he or Cohen know that arrested protesters were questioned about matters other than their names and address? Was either aware of the debriefing form? Did either know the questions on the form?

That's just for openers.

©2003 Newsday, Inc.Reprinted with permission.