Landmark settlement in NYPD surveillance of New York Muslims

29th Jan 2016
Landmark settlement in NYPD surveillance of New York Muslims

Imam Hamid Hassan Raza, the lead plaintiff in Raza v City of New York. (Photo: ACLU)

Nadine Osman

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has agreed to a series of operational reforms as part of a settlement of two lawsuits over illegal surveillance of Muslims following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Under the settlement reached on January 7, the NYPD has also agreed to strengthen safeguards against launching investigations and conducting surveillance against Muslims based on their faith.

The settlement was announced in Raza versus City of New York, a lawsuit on behalf of three Muslims, two mosques, and a Muslim non-profit organisation, who alleged they were swept up in the NYPD’s dragnet surveillance of Muslims.

The Union American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the CLEAR project at CUNY School of Law, filed the suit in 2013. The lawsuit argued that the NYPD mapped Muslim communities and institutions, sent officers and informants into mosques to monitor innocent imams and congregants, and used other invasive means to spy on Muslims.

The settlement, which is subject to court approval, imposes safeguards to ensure police investigations are in line with the Constitution including the reinstallation of an independent regulator that will monitor their counter-terrorism operations.

ACLU National Security Project Director, Hine Shamsi, said, “The settlement is a win for New York Muslims and for all New Yorkers, who have a right to be free from discriminatory police surveillance and to practice their religion without stigma or fear.”

She added that the “settlement puts much needed constraints on law enforcement’s discriminatory and unjustified surveillance of Muslims.”

The settlement ends two of three civil-rights lawsuits filed by groups and Muslims after a series of articles in 2011 by the Associated Press reported that intelligence-unit officers infiltrated mosques and student groups in New York and New Jersey in racial and religious profiling.

The NYPD has never admitted illegal surveillance of Muslims and makes no admission in the settlement that it acted improperly. Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism and Intelligence Unit, John Miller, said, “What we get is guiding principles. What we don’t lose is flexibility.”

The new guidelines emulate those designed by the US Attorney General and used by federal authorities during counterterrorism probes.

The revelations about surveillance of mosques and student groups led to distrust of the police in the Muslim community and became a campaign issue for Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2013.

The settlement doesn’t affect a separate case in New Jersey that was initially thrown out from federal court in Newark but later reinstated. In that case, 11 people have accused the NYPD of crossing state lines to gather evidence based on their ethnicity or religion.

The Department, which officials say uses a series of tools including informants and undercover officers to gather information after receiving tips of potential illegal activity, has said officers didn’t act on any information gathered during the surveillance.

The Handschu rules were created in 1985 as part of a consent decree settling a 1971 case involving a group of Communist radicals who claimed the NYD spied on them and violated their rights.

Following the September 11, 2001, the guidelines were relaxed, despite opposition from some of the plaintiffs in the settlement, after the NYPD successfully argued that it needed more leeway to authorise investigations and detect terrorists.

The civilian attorney monitoring surveillance was removed, and discretion to open and close investigations was in the hands of the department’s head of intelligence.

Under the guidelines, the attorney, who will be appointed by the mayor in consultation with the police commissioner, will serve as a third party-monitor at the monthly meetings of counterterrorism officials. The return of an outside attorney appears to satisfy a request by plaintiffs for a court-appointed monitor.

Also as part of the settlement, the NYPD agreed to take down a controversial report titled “Radical of the West” from its website. Critics argued that it justified discriminatory surveillance of Muslims.

The Department also agreed to put in writing new timetables for investigations. Under the old guidelines, the NYPD had no duration for full investigations and a two-year ceiling on preliminary investigations.

Preliminary investigations will no longer exceed 18 months and full investigations 3 years and probes into suspected terrorist activities won’t extend beyond 5 years, with some exceptions. All of these time limits can be prolonged at the discretion of the Deputy Commissioner of intelligence.

In a statement The Muslim News the Muslim Advocates and the Centre for Constitutional Rights which is litigating a similar, ongoing challenge against the de Blasio Administration on behalf of Muslims in New Jersey, said the “settlement is important in light of escalating anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes in the US, but at the same time we hope Mayor de Blasio will be more vocal about why the Department was simply wrong to engage in religious profiling of the Muslim community in the first place. We hope he will also come to the right side of history in our case on behalf of Muslims in New Jersey who were similarly subject to blanket, suspicion-less surveillance by the NYPD. ”

“As a historic court ruling in our case reminded the de Blasio Administration in October, we have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II. We must ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. ”

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