Did the NYPD’s Spying on Muslims Violate the Law?
Posted on Mar 1, 2012
By Justin Elliott, ProPublica
Last August, the Associated Press launched a series detailing how the New York Police Department has extensively investigated Muslims in New York and other states, preparing reports on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, apparently without any suspicion of crimes have been committed.
The propriety and legality of the NYPD’s activities is being disputed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who claimed last year that the NYPD does not focus on religion and only follows threats or leads, is now arguing that, as he said last week, “Everything the NYPD has done is legal, it is appropriate, it is constitutional.” Others disagree. In fact, Bloomberg himself signed a law in 2004 that prohibits profiling by law enforcement personnel based on religion.
This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a congressional committee that the Justice Department is reviewing whether to investigate potential civil rights violations by the NYPD.
To get a better understanding of the rules governing the NYPD—and whether the department has followed them in its surveillance of Muslims—we spoke to Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center at NYU School of Law.
The NYPD did not respond to our request for comment about allegations it has violated the law.
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Patel: They are operating under at least three sets of rules. The first and most basic set of rules is the consent decree from the Handschu case—the so-called Handschu guidelines. This was a 1970s-era political surveillance case that was settled through a consent decree. The NYPD had been conducting surveillance of a number of political groups in the 1960s and ‘70s. The initial consent decree regulated the NYPD’s collection of intelligence about political activity. It first said the NYPD can only collect intelligence about political activities if it follows certain rules. For example, the NYPD had to get clearance from something called the Handschu authority, which was a three-member board that consisted of two high-level police officials and one civilian appointed by the mayor.
Then, post-9/11, the NYPD went to court and asked a judge to review the consent decree because they wanted greater freedom in their counterterrorism operations. What they wound up doing was adopting guidelines based on the FBI’s guidelines from 2003, issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft. These were different in several important ways. The first was that there was no pre-clearance at all ... no requirement that the NYPD get approval from the Handschu authority before they undertook any intel gathering about political activity. The second was that the guidelines explicitly say the NYPD can attend any public event or gathering on the same basis as another member of the public. So, if I can go to a church, the NYPD can go to a church. But it goes on to say that the NYPD can’t retain the information it gathers from such public events unless it is connected to suspected criminal or terrorist activity.
ProPublica: So, if you look at, say, the NYPD’s guide to Newark’s Muslim community obtained and published by AP—which maps out mosques and Muslim-owned businesses without mentioning any suspected crimes—aren’t the police retaining exactly this kind of information?
Patel: There are a couple of documents that suggest they may have violated Handschu—for example, the [2006 NYPD report] on the Danish cartoon controversy, which is a collection of statements in mosques and other places that have been taken by undercover officers or confidential informants.
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