New York Police Department surveillance films

Collection REC0063 - RG 062. New York Police Department

Abstract

Throughout the 20th century, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) conducted overt and covert surveillance on groups and individuals identified as potential security threats to the City. This collection comprises black and white 16 mm silent surveillance films. They were shot by the NYPD Photo Unit for Manhattan (PUM) for the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI). The subjects include a broad range of political activist groups and events from 1960 to 1980. The films are generally 100 feet in length and up to three minutes in duration.

Extent

50 cubic feet (1,448 reels) ; 16 mm film, approximately 100 feet each

Dates

1960-1980



Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Patrons are requested to use the digitized version of this collection in order to protect the original records.

Physical Location

Materials are stored onsite at 31 Chambers St. on Shelves 22015-22051, 21595-21613 and 22465-22489.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was transferred from New York City Police Department in 2015 and are part of Accession # 2018-004.

Alternate Forms Available

This collection has been digitized and is available to view through our online gallery.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Film Archivist Christopher Nicols in 2019. The original black and white 16 mm silent films were scanned to create digital video files in .mov and .mp4 formats for master and access versions, respectively. The collection inventory was compiled by transcribing information from a logbook created by the Bureau of Special Services to track their surveillance assignments. Additional information such as key words and expanded titles in brackets were added by the Film Archivist.
Dating from 1960-1980, the collection comprises 1,448 reels of 16mm black and white silent films taken by the New York Police Department (NYPD) for surveillance purposes. (There are three additional 8mm films that have not been digitized.) The films depict surveillance activities that were ordered by the Bureau of Special Services (BOSSI) and then carried out by the NYPD Photo Unit of Manhattan (PUM). The PUM officers were generally plain clothed to enable covert filming of their subjects, most often in public places. Virtually all of the films in this collection were shot on 100 foot reels, lasting up to three minutes in length.

The films primarily document various political and activist groups BOSSI believed posed potential threats to the peace and safety of New York City residents. These groups included activists conducting protests, strikes, sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience focused on the end of segregation, the beginning of Civil Rights, protests against wars in Vietnam and South-East Asia, student and labor movements, as well as preventing assassination plots against foreign figures visiting the United Nations. The collection also includes footage of parades, religious festivals, celebrations for successful NASA missions, rallies for political parties and even home movies shot by NYPD officers.

The films in this collection do not represent all of the films BOSSI or PUM recorded during this time. For example, those used in successful criminal prosecutions would have been entered into evidence and, as such, were handled separately from those transferred to the Municipal Archives.
The New York City Police Department’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI) had three major responsibilities: escorting dignitaries visiting New York City; acting as a liaison for the police department in major labor disputes; and conducting investigations as directed by the Police Commissioner, the Chief Inspector and the Chief of Detectives. BOSSI detectives would investigate and designate groups or individuals for surveillance at a specified place and time. These assignments would be written down in a logbook and then carried out by the NYPD’s Manhattan Photo Unit (PUM), regardless of which borough the surveillance was being conducted in. PUM would then develop the films and provide them to BOSSI detectives as needed.

BOSSI had many different names over the course of the 20th century. It began as the Radical Bureau in 1912 when its primary mission was to investigate the status of alien residents. In 1915, it was renamed the Neutrality Squad and tasked with preventing bomb throwing anarchists. By 1923 it had been renamed the Radical Squad and their focus shifted to combatting communist dissidents. In 1931 the Radical Squad became the Bureau of Criminal Alien Investigations; in 1945 it became the Public Relations Squad. In 1946, it was renamed yet again as the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations. In 1955 it was simplified to the Bureau of Special Services. Despite this final change, it was still commonly referred to as BOSSI by NYPD officers and staff.

Most of the groups filmed by the NYPD were part of a broad and disparate counter culture movement that often found common cause in the protests against the Vietnam War. As the war ramped up through the 1960s, activists for school integration, women’s equality, gay rights, labor unions and the sexual revolution all saw different aspects of the Vietnam War as emblematic of their own struggles over American culture and domestic policy. At the same time, these counter culture movements also sparked a backlash. As one of the cultural and financial centers of the country, New York City frequently found itself as a site for mass protests on both sides of these contentious issues.

In 1985, a federal court found the surveillance methods used by BOSSI unconstitutional, forcing the NYPD to alter their approach to spying on New York City residents. Known as the “Handschu Agreement” after the lead plaintiff in the case, it stipulated that the surveillance of political groups could only be handled by the Public Security Section of the New York Police Department and only if there was suspicion that a crime had been committed. These restrictions did not apply to the films in this collection.

Sources

  1. Bouza, Anthony V. Police Intelligence: The Operations of an Investigative Unit. New York, NY: AMS Press, Inc., 1976.
  2. New York Police Department intelligence records, 1931-1988; REC 0044; Municipal Archives, City of New York
The collection is arranged in chronological order.
Title
Guide to the New York Police Department surveillance films, 1960-1980
Status
Completed
Author
Christopher Nicols, Alexandra Hilton
Date
2019 October
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
eng
Sponsor
This project was made possible in part by a grant from the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund (LGRMIF) of the New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department.