Cameron Mease, a senior staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, was walking in downtown Brooklyn, New York, on Thursday morning when he saw a group of six or seven men shove someone against a fence, put him in handcuffs, and drag him into an unmarked van. The men were dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Given their behavior and attire, a passerby would’ve had good reason to think he’d just witnessed a kidnapping.
But Mease had seen such scenes unfold before, and he was pretty sure he knew what he’d just seen. He believed these were plainclothes agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and that they’d come to the Brooklyn courthouse to take someone into custody who they knew would be there for a court date. After witnessing the arrest, Mease asked one of the men to identify himself. He got no reply. “He kind of looked at me derisively, like he was annoyed, and sort of waved his hand at my face,” the lawyer told me later.
Mease then watched as some of the men drove off with their apparent suspect while others stayed behind. “I heard them talking about how they had two more people to get,” Mease said.
Mease’s instinct was right. The men were ICE officers, and the agency confirmed that it made four arrests at the courthouse on Thursday, all of them involving undocumented immigrants suspected of participating in criminal gang activity. According to Gothamist, the four arrestees had come to the courthouse Thursday morning to face misdemeanor charges stemming from a trespassing incident in July.
The presence of ICE agents at a New York courthouse was not, in and of itself, news. A report by the Immigrant Defense Project noted that the agency had arrested 53 people at courthouses across the state as of early last month. What made Thursday different was that Mease was able to brief his colleagues at Brooklyn Defender Services quickly enough for one of them, Scott Hechinger, to blast it out over Twitter. Hechinger asked journalists to come watch, and he urged “all noncitizens with court dates” to “stay away” from the courthouse and contact their lawyers.
When I arrived at 120 Schermerhorn St. around 11 a.m., some of the men Mease had seen a few hours earlier had moved inside and gone up to the eighth floor, where they stood in a public hallway. I recognized one of the men from a photo Brooklyn Defender Services had posted on Twitter and approached him. Dressed in a bright blue shirt, with an Apple Watch on his wrist, and tattoos peeking out from under his sleeves, he stood in a group with three others, including one older man in a suit whom I later identified as Michael Ryan, the bureau chief of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office.
When I asked the men if they were ICE agents, they did not say yes; one of them, in fact, stated unequivocally that he was not. When I asked what they were doing at the courthouse, they declined to respond, and Ryan told me I should call the DA’s office if I wanted more information.
Lawyers in the hallway all seemed certain these guys were with ICE, but I could see no identifying markers: Not only were they in plainclothes, but they wore no badges or nametags, and carried no walkie-talkies or other law enforcement equipment. Aside from their conspicuously self-assured and imposing manner, they were indistinguishable from the people standing around them. Quite literally, these men were secret police.
As far as I could tell, the men from ICE made no arrests during their visit to the eighth floor; after a few minutes of conversation with Ryan, they headed for the elevator bank. As they rode down to the first floor, two of them discussed plans to watch a boxing match together on Saturday night. In this video shot by Mic’s Andrew Joyce, you can see them filing out of the courthouse one by one and getting into a pair of unmarked cars:
A source who declined to speak for attribution later told me that the hallway conversation between Ryan and the three men had been a confrontational one. Ryan had arrived after hearing reports of ICE agents in the courthouse and informed them that if they were planning to arrest anyone, he needed to know about it. According to the source, the ICE agents hadn’t just been reticent with me because I was a reporter: They also refused to confirm they were with ICE when Ryan—a representative of the DA’s office—asked them directly. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Acting Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzales has publicly condemned ICE for staking out courthouses, saying at a recent press conference that the practice makes witnesses and victims of crime feel it’s unsafe to come to court. “ICE should treat courthouses as sensitive locations, like it does schools and houses of worship, to allow everyone free access to our justice system and stop the chilling effect felt by victims and witnesses,” Gonzales said.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the State of New York Office of Court Administration, told me in an email that statewide protocol requires all law enforcement agents, including ICE officers, to inform courthouse personnel when they show up to make arrests. Chalfen said that didn’t happen on Thursday—the agents did not check in or show any warrants before entering the courthouse.
The stonewalling Mease, Ryan, and I got from the men we encountered at the courthouse doesn’t seem to be a consequence of strict departmental policy. When one of Mease’s colleagues from Brooklyn Defender Services, Nathaniel Damren, asked one of them on Thursday morning if he was with ICE, the officer replied “yes, sir”—an exchange Damren captured on video and shared with me. Rachael Yong Yow, a spokeswoman for ICE’s New York field office, said in an email that she was not certain what ICE’s policy was about officers identifying themselves; this article will be updated if I receive any additional information.
We can’t expect all law enforcement officers in all situations to identify themselves when asked to do so: In some cases, it could put them in danger or blow their cover. But those circumstances should be the exception, not the rule. In a free society, a law enforcement officer should state clearly that he or she represents the state and wields its power in all but a few exceptional circumstances. What I witnessed on Thursday did not come anywhere close to clearing that bar.
After the agents left the scene, a group of journalists asked one of the lawyers from Brooklyn Defender Services what distinguished Thursday’s events from the other times ICE agents had come to the courthouse.
“The fact that you guys were able to make it down here to document it is what makes it different,” Theodore Hastings said. “Usually they just come, they snatch people up, and they’re gone before anybody even knows.”
Slate intern Aaron Mak contributed reporting to this article.