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How Police Surveillance Units Became Unlikely Historians

The path toward the exhibition began, the records department officials say, with a phone call in 2011 from the police, who were looking for advice on how to dispose of old nitrate film, which can be combustible. A curator at the records agency, Michael Lorenzini, who is now the deputy director of the Municipal Archives, went to visit a damp basement inside Police Headquarters where he found dozens of boxes of photo negatives and glass plates containing about 150,000 images from 1897 to 1975.

It was an archivist’s dream: mug shots, photographs of murder scenes and documentation of police ceremonies in addition to the surveillance material, all of it with historic merit. The crew of archivists began cataloging the photographs, using police records, including logbooks, to figure out what the pictures depicted. In addition, the records department discovered a number of reels of film shot between 1960 and 1980. The agency is planning to raise money to digitize the film and so far has examined only a handful of reels.

“We know there’s gold in there but it’s kind of hidden,” said Quinn Bolewicki, an archivist who worked on the cataloging.


A photo from the exhibit depicting the National Renaissance Party demonstrating in front of the Rhodesian Embassy at 535 Fifth Avenue on April 1, 1972.

Joshua Bright for The New York Times

The curators decided that among the most interesting materials were the surveillance images and footage from the 1960s and 1970s, an archive that city curators view as one of the most expansive visual records of political and social movements in the United States from that era. Sometimes the image-gathering was clandestine, performed by plainclothes officers who carried still cameras and circulated quietly through the crowds. Other times the monitoring efforts were more open, with officers setting up large movie-style cameras next to police vehicles.

A visit to the gallery carries one back to an impassioned and divisive era. Here are images of people gathered in Central Park in 1967 for the Spring Mobilization Committee March, a large protest against the Vietnam War. In one, a young man in a dark coat holds aloft a burning draft card. Another shows counterdemonstrators as they converge inside the park. One man carries a sign that reads in part “Let’s Bomb Hanoi.”

Some of the police surveillance was curtailed by a lawsuit that ended in 1985 with a federal consent decree that restricted how the police were permitted to investigate political activity. The suit, Handschu v. Special Services Division, asserted that undercover officers had violated the civil rights of members of groups like the Black Panther Party and Veterans and Reservists Against the War in Vietnam by spying on, infiltrating and disrupting their activities. As part of the consent decree, the police agreed they would not investigate political groups that had not been linked to criminal activity.

One of the lawyers who filed the suit, Martin R. Stolar, and one of the plaintiffs, Joe Sucher, have toured the exhibition. Mr. Sucher was also one of four New York University students who made the documentary “Red Squad,” a film that detailed efforts to expose police surveillance at political events and was screened for a week in 1972 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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