updated 11/18/2008 6:42:09 PM ET 2008-11-18T23:42:09

America's biggest police department quietly dropped a policy that encouraged officers to videotape political demonstrations — even legal and peaceful ones — without restrictions, a civil rights group said Monday.

The New York Civil Liberties Union had challenged the New York Police Department practice in a federal lawsuit following the 2004 Republican National Convention.

The suit alleged that during the convention, which was held at Madison Square Garden, roving teams of officers armed with video cameras infringed on free speech by taping protests at will. Police said the taping was needed as a security measure to combat terrorism, and they have steadfastly denied violating civil rights.

The NYPD, which has more than 35,000 officers, "does not engage in unlawful political surveillance," a city lawyer, Celeste Koeleveld, said in a statement on Monday.

With the outcome of a lawsuit still pending, the NYPD issued an internal order last year withdrawing the regulation permitting unrestricted photographing and videotaping of all political activity in the city, the NYCLU said. The order restored guidelines under the so-called Handschu decision, named for the lead plaintiff in a case that included 1960s radical activist Abbie Hoffman and others as plaintiffs.

The NYCLU claims that it wasn't notified of the change until last month.

"While we're glad that the NYPD realized its surveillance policy ran counter to the Handschu decree, it's disturbing that the department did so in secret, wasting precious tax dollars to engage in an unnecessary legal battle," said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the NYCLU.

The city's Law Department disputed that claim, saying it notified a judge about the changes in videotaping policy last February.

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