More than a dozen members of a well-respected local community group in Rockland County have filed a federal lawsuit claiming they were targeted by a secret law enforcement intelligence unit engaged in racial profiling and illegal surveillance.
In September, the I-Team obtained a classified, internal report compiled by The Strategic Intelligence Unit (SIU), a joint venture of the Rockland County district attorney's office and Clarkstown police department, that showed 14 members of the group "We The People," had their backgrounds checked for criminal activity or any contact with police.
"I feel violated," Mel Hancock, a father and grandfather, said when he saw his picture and private personal information detailed.
In 2015, Hancock directed a production of a play "A Clean Shoot?" The play, sponsored by "We the People," focused on the mindset of a white police officer who mistakenly shot a black undercover cop. Hancock said the play was written by a law enforcement officer.
"The idea was to have a dialogue about race relations," said "We the People" member Jen Scott, who works as a personal manager.
Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe told the I-Team the word "shoot" triggered a review by the SIU in an effort to protect "We the People" from potential threats. He said the same was done with members of "Black Lives Matter."
Both Zugibe and then-Police Chief Michael Sullivan have told the I-Team the SIU only monitored publicly available social media.
William O. Wagstaff III, attorney for "We the People," dismissed their statements that the SIU did not conduct illegal surveillance.
"That's a lie," he said. "It's there in black and white."
Wagstaff filed the bias lawsuit on the members' behalf in federal court Thursday. He also called for a federal civil rights investigation into the Clarkstown police department and the SIU.
“They’ve proven they are incapable of policing themselves. They’ve proven they cannot be trusted,” he said.
Elie Civil, a mental health therapist, said he believes other police departments may be conducting similar types of background checks on non-violent community groups.
"The only reason we know about it is because of the NBC I-Team," he said. "Otherwise, we wouldn’t know about it.”
Attorneys for the town of Clarkstown and police officials declined to comment, saying they had not seen the lawsuit. The Rockland County district attorney was not named in the lawsuit. He previously stated that any monitoring was local and that the group’s members were not run through the state database.
Sullivan is currently suspended with pay by the town board and fighting administrative charges unrelated to the lawsuit filed Thursday.