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Suspended Clarkstown Chief Says SIU Is Not 'Big Brother'

Clarkstown Police Chief Michael Sullivan Photo Credit: Clarkstown Police Department
Rockland County District Attorney Thomas P. Zugibe explains how the SIU works. Photo Credit: Rockland County

CLARKSTOWN, N.Y. -- As accusations fly between Clarkstown officials and suspended Police Chief Michael Sullivan over activities of the Strategic Intelligence Unit (SIU), and claims of illegal surveillance, the chief wants to set the record straight on what the unit actually does.

"There is no political espionage going on in SIU, and they are not gathering information about residents," said Sullivan. "The unit is a part of 21st Century policing practices used to help keep the public safe."

Run by the Rockland County District Attorney's Office, SIU operates under the direct supervision of Peter Modaferri, the chief of detectives for the DA's office, said Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe in a statement.

The unit is in the business of passive surveillance, which means officers within the unit gather information by monitoring publicly available "social media," including Facebook and Twitter, in addition to others, through the use of key words and phrases that alert the unit about activities in the county that might be of interest to local law enforcement agencies, Zugibe said.

Clarkstown officials, including Supervisor George Hoehmann, claim that Sullivan and others used the SIU to engage in illegal and inappropriate profiling, as well as other improper and illegal activities, while former Clarkstown Sgt. Stephen Cole-Hatchard served as the director of the SIU.

"Not true," Sullivan says.

A classic example of the work the unit does perform, he added, is a recent showing of the movie "A Clean Shoot," in Haverstraw.

An advertisement that ran online for the movie showed a white police officer pointing a gun. Officers with the unit checked out the company behind the ad and found they were legitimate, as was the movie. They in turn notified Haverstraw police about the information they had gathered.

"When you have an event that could potentially draw large crowds or even protests, it is in the best interest of the public to check out the event," he said. "In this case, there was nothing to it."

Another recent example is when the word "jihad" popped up in connection with an upcoming performance at a local club. Sullivan said known gang members were posting online that they were going to the event, so the club's owner was contacted and he hired extra security to make sure attendees were safe.

"Once again, there were no problems, but after Dallas, when people were protesting peacefully and a lone wolf shoots five police officers, you can't be too careful when it comes to these types of events," he said.

Zugibe says the words and phrases are applicable to social and online media and news outlets, much the same way an individual can search for a person on Facebook or Twitter and view their public profiles, friends, posts, likes and dislikes, etc., with a strong emphasis on violence interruption.

"The SIU's monitoring does not involve wire taps, electronic or surreptitious surveillance, hiding our (police) identity to get someone to incriminate themselves or any technique in violation of individual civil rights," said Zugibe. "We are being proactive in monitoring for possible problems so that local law enforcement can adequately plan and prepare to deploy personnel in a more efficient manner reducing response time and, more importantly, reducing the risk of harm to the identified group or individual, the public and the police."

The unit does not operate in a vacuum either. The results of the unit's monitoring is reported monthly to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services for review, he added.

Sullivan believes the allegations by town officials is hurting the good name, and the good work the unit undertakes.

"They aren't out there wiretapping and following people," he said. "The public has access to the same information. This is done to help keep residents safe during these turbulent times."

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