What to Know
Some Black Lives Matter members in Rockland County claim they were racially profiled and subjected to illegal surveillance by a secret unit
They're suing the town of Clarkstown and police department officials in federal court; the complaint will be filed Wednesday
The district attorney's office, which oversees the unit in question, has repeatedly denied it ever conducted illegal surveillance
Local members of Black Lives Matter in Rockland County, New York, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday claiming they were racially profiled and targeted for illegal surveillance by a secret law enforcement unit.
The I-Team reviewed the complaint, which claims the Strategic Intelligence Unit, a joint venture of the Rockland County district attorney’s office and the Clarkstown Police Department, targeted Black Lives Matter as part of a violence reduction initiative.
An attorney for Clarkstown was reviewing the complaint Wednesday afternoon and had no immediate comment.
Attorney William O. Wagstaff III, who represents Black Lives Matter and another local black community group, "We the People," said Wednesday that Clarkstown Police violated the constitutional rights of the groups' members.
“We filed the lawsuit today alleging violations of the First Amendment as well as the 14th amendment for the illegal activity, specifically illegal surveillance of the members,” Wagstaff said.
The lawsuit cites two classified reports that list “Black Lives Matter Movement” along with other categories such as “Terrorism,” “Police Riots,” “Gangs” and “Heroin Initiative.”
Black Lives Matter members said their rallies have always been non-violent.
Everett Newton, a pastor, said, “We’re not out to destroy the community. To be listed as terrorists or drug runners, that’s not what we stand for. They look at us and say, ‘They’re dangerous.’”
A local teacher named Dominique McGregor echoed Newton's sentiment.
“Black folks are continuously being criminalized by the system," McGregor said. "We are not criminals.”
Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe has repeatedly denied that the SIU ever conducted illegal surveillance.
“This unit does not engage in any type of surveillance. They’re engaged in passive surveillance or monitoring of publicly available social media, period. End of story,” he said.
Zugibe said the goal of the SIU was to protect Black Lives Matter and We the People from threats. Last fall, the I-Team uncovered another classified report that showed 14 members of "We the People" had their personal information collected and run through a law enforcement data base that checked for any contact with police.
Wagstaff III said federal law prohibits the surveillance and collection of electronic data concerning a group’s political, religious or social views unless there is reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.
“BLM members never presented any perceived or any other threat,” said Wagstaff. “They singled them out and they racially profiled them and they targeted them because they didn’t like the message.”
Last month, "We the People" members settled a federal lawsuit with the town of Clarkstown for $300,000. Town officials did not acknowledge any wrongdoing or liability.
It’s unclear whether any members of BLM were run through a database but Jerlyne Calixte, a counselor, said police are always out in force at the group’s peaceful rallies.
“It’s like they’re anticipating something will go wrong,” Calixte said.
“When black people gather, we are over-policed. We were only affirming that our lives matter. There is no reason to be criminalize for that,” she said.
The local Black Lives Matter members said they are concerned that law enforcement may be targeting their organization in other towns and states.
Weldon McWilliams, a professor and minister said, “Too often law enforcement looks at BLM as an anti-police organization and that’s not who we are.”
An attorney for the town of Clarkstown said the town has not yet been served with the legal papers and can’t comment. The I-Team has confirmed that the town Board referred the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office last year to, according to the document, "report evidence of what appears to be illegal profiling by the Clarkstown Police Department of Rockland County citizens based solely upon their race, political or social affiliations."
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined comment.
Richard Glickel, attorney for Clarkstown Police Chief Michael Sullivan, who is currently suspended with pay and running for supervisor, said, “Chief Michael Sullivan has never engaged in, directed or condoned any surveillance of members of BLM; nor does Chief Sullivan believe that the SIU, which is overseen by the District Attorney, engaged in surveillance of BLM or its members.”
The district attorney's office reiterated that in a statement.
"An exhaustive review of the SIU by an independent and nationally recognized expert in this field has determined that this unit never engaged in any racial profiling or unlawful surveillance," the statement said. "The allegations against the highly-skilled law enforcement professionals who staff this specialized unit are false and totally without merit.”