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Clarkstown Slapped With Racial Profiling Federal Lawsuit

Members from the Rockland  County Black Lives Matter have filed a federal lawsuit against Clarkstown.
Members from the Rockland County Black Lives Matter have filed a federal lawsuit against Clarkstown. Photo Credit: Black Lives Matter/Rockland/Orange

CLARKSTOWN, N.Y. -- The attorney for Rockland County members of Black Lives Matter said Friday Clarkstown "has bought this one," referring to a federal lawsuit the group filed on Wednesday for racial profiling.

William Wagstaff III said the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, is in response to illegal surveillance by the Clarkstown Police Department through the Rockland County District Attorney's Office special intelligence unit.

The suit was filed against the Town of Clarkstown, suspended Police Chief Michael Sullivan, and former police Sgt. Stephen Cole-Hatchard who worked with the SIU unit.

The lawsuit claims the police department, several officials, and intelligence unit members began profiling Rockland County members of Black Lives Matter in January 2015.

It also claims the surveillance violated the member's' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and targeted the group for its stance on the treatment of people of color by police.

Wagstaff claims the police put snipers on rooftops when the group gathered and placed them under the same surveillance criteria as terrorism and heroin.

Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe has maintained that the unit did nothing illegal. On Friday Zugibe said: "An exhaustive and independent review of the Strategic Intelligence Unit has determined that this unit never engaged in any racial profiling or unlawful surveillance. The allegations against the highly-skilled law enforcement professionals who staff this specialized unit are false and totally without merit."

Zugibe added that pursuant to a State of New York grant, the SIU was required to file regular activity reports with the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). The report filed with the State included reference to the social media monitoring of the BLM event undertaken as a threat assessment measure to assure that there were no threats of violence against this group. The monitoring of publicly available social media is referred to by law enforcement as “passive surveillance”.

Wagstaff also points to a letter Town Supervisor George Hoehmann sent to Assistant U.S. Attorney seeking an investigation into racial profiling as part of his attempt to get rid of Chief Sullivan.

"How much clearer can they be?" Wagstaff said. "As I said, they bought this one."

The lawsuit asks for an injunction stopping Clarkstown from engaging in illegal surveillance, in addition to disbanding the SIU unit unless they adopt certain standards, and also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

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