Newark mayor and Yale president slam NYPD spying program

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Fliers outside the prayer room at the Islamic Culture Center in Newark, N.J.
(Photo: AP/Charles Dharapak)

Has the New York Police Department (NYPD) finally overplayed its hand?

As the steady drip of revelations from the Associated Press (AP) about the NYPD’s domestic surveillance program targeting Muslims continues, the reaction from New York City’s mayor has been to dismiss any concerns. But now, amid new revelations that the NYPD not only scoured the city spying on Muslims but ventured out to Newark, New Jersey and Long Island, and to Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, some power brokers are speaking up.

The AP reported yesterday:

Americans living and working in New Jersey’s largest city were subjected to surveillance as part of the New York Police Department’s effort to build databases of where Muslims work, shop and pray. The operation in Newark was so secretive even the city’s mayor says he was kept in the dark.

For months in mid-2007, plainclothes officers from the NYPD’s Demographics Units fanned out across Newark, taking pictures and eavesdropping on conversations inside businesses owned or frequented by Muslims.

The result was a 60-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, containing brief summaries of businesses and their clientele. Police also photographed and mapped 16 mosques, listing them as “Islamic Religious Institutions.”

The report cited no evidence of terrorism or criminal behavior. It was a guide to Newark’s Muslims.

According to the report, the operation was carried out in collaboration with the Newark Police Department, which at the time was run by a former high-ranking NYPD official. But Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, said he never authorized the spying and was never told about it.

“Wow,” he said as the AP laid out the details of the report. “This raises a number of concerns. It’s just very, very sobering.”

Police conducted similar operations outside their jurisdiction in New York’s Suffolk and Nassau counties on suburban Long Island, according to police records.

The New Jersey Star-Ledger has more on Booker’s reaction to the AP revelations:

Booker said he had been unaware of the undercover work and the Newark Police Department – which had been contacted by the NYPD early on – had not been involved in any joint operations.

“What we are discovering appears to be an NYPD operation in our city that involved the blanket surveillance of Newark residents and workers based solely on the religion of those individuals,” he said. “If this is indeed what transpired, it is, I believe, a clear infringement on the core liberties of our citizenry.”

Similar outrage was expressed by Yale President Richard Levin in a statement saying that “police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States.”

These leaders offer a sharp contrast to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who yesterday insisted that the NYPD operations were necessary to keep the U.S. safe.

The story doesn’t stop there. The AP published another article yesterday detailing how “mosque crawlers” monitored New York imams’ sermons were monitored:

At the Masjid Al-Falah in Queens, one leader condemned the [Danish] cartoons but said Muslims should not to resort to violence. Speaking at the Masjid Dawudi mosque in Brooklyn, another called on Muslims to speak out against the cartoons, but peacefully.

The sermons, all protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, were reported back to the NYPD by the department’s network of mosque informants. They were compiled in police intelligence reports and summarized for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Those documents offer the first glimpse of what the NYPD’s informants — known informally as “mosque crawlers” — gleaned from inside the houses of worship. And, along with hundreds of pages of other secret NYPD documents obtained by The Associated Press, they show police targeting mosques and their congregations with tactics normally reserved for criminal organizations.

They did so in ways that brushed against — and civil rights lawyers say at times violated — a federal court order restricting how police can gather intelligence.

The NYPD Intelligence Division snapped pictures and collected license plate numbers of congregants as they arrived to pray. Police mounted cameras on light poles and aimed them at mosques. Plainclothes detectives mapped and photographed mosques and listed the ethnic makeup of those who prayed there.

The NYPD is notorious for being an institution where there is little accountability. Until the latest revelations detailed above were published, there was little noise from elected officials, despite the pleas for accountability from Muslim communities and their allies. The New York City Council has little oversight of the NYPD.

But it’s in New Jersey where Muslim-Americans may begin to see the inklings of a push for accountability. Chris Christie, the Republican governor, has said that Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa is looking into the matter. And even more importantly, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez today became the first senator to request a federal investigation into the spying program, according to the AP.

The Justice Department says that “they’re reviewing the request.”

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