The New York Police Department’s monitoring of political activity dates at least to the early 20th century, when it launched an Anarchist Squad to target activists who held unwelcome opinions. Later, the infiltration of activist groups became the work of the Bomb Squad, then the Radical Bureau and then the Bureau of Special Services, or BOSS. By the end of the 1960s, according to author Frank Donner, the BOSS list of activists’ names contained more than a million names. In 1971, 16 activists sued the bureau and the police department over an alleged campaign by BOSS to infiltrate and disrupt legal protest groups. The first plaintiff was an activist lawyer named Barbara Handschu. She was joined by people like pacifist Ralph DiGia, Black Panther Alex McKeiver and Yippies founder Abbie Hoffman.
In 1985, the NYPD settled the suit by accepting restrictions on police investigations of political groups. Only the Intelligence Division could pursue such investigations, and only when there was specific information that a crime was being committed or planned. While the Intelligence Division could launch a 30-day investigation on its own, any longer-running probe required the approval of a three-person panel that included a civilian mayoral appointee and two police officials.
The NYPD moved in 2002 to loosen those rules, saying that they tied the department’s hands in the fight against terrorism. In early 2003, federal judge Charles Haight of the Southern District of New York approved much of the NYPD’s request, widening the scope of political activity that cops could investigate and eliminating most oversight. New guidelines were put in place. Since then, the city and the lawyers representing the Handschu plaintiffs have wrestled over the meaning of Haight’s earlier decisions and whether police videotaping violates his orders.