Backlash grows against surveillance targeting Muslims: Lawsuit and bills take aim at NYPD

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The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit yesterday against the NYPD’s surveillance program targeting Muslims. On the left is Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. On the right is Hamid Hassan Raza, an imam in Brooklyn and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
(Photo via ACLU)

The backlash against the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) program of spying on Muslims in the Northeast is growing.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit yesterday that seeks to halt the surveillance program and have it deemed unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, legislative efforts in New Jersey and New York City aimed at reining in NYPD excesses have advanced. The increased attention on the NYPD’s surveillance program targeting Muslims, many of them innocent of any crime, comes as the larger national conversation continues to focus on U.S. government spying on millions of Americans.

The ACLU lawsuit also requests the judge to appoint an outside monitor for the police department to ensure that the NYPD follows any court order that may come down, and for the police to “expunge” any collected records pertaining to the ACLU’s plaintiffs.

“NYPD surveillance has affected every facet of American Muslim life in our city,” said Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project, in a statement. “The program has stifled speech, disrupted communal life and chilled religious practice, and it has criminalized a broad segment of American Muslims.”

A Pulitzer-Prize winning series by the Associated Press revealed the breadth of NYPD surveillance on Muslims. Since 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD spied on the city’s Muslim partners; infiltrated student groups; employed informants who snapped photos and took down the phone numbers of innocent Muslim New Yorkers; and baited Muslims with inflammatory language in order to capture conversations about violent jihad. NYPD employees also mapped entire Muslim communities and sent what is known in police parlance as “mosque crawlers” to document imams’ sermons. A top NYPD official has admitted that no terrorism leads have been garnered from the surveillance program.

The ACLU lawsuit was announced yesterday at a press conference outside NYPD headquarters in Manhattan. The ACLU, CLEAR and the New York Civil Liberties Union are representing plaintiffs in the suit, including two New York City mosques, a young Muslim whose organization was infiltrated, an imam and a teacher who speaks about Islam. Defendants include police commissioner Ray Kelly; Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen, who has been instrumental in turning the NYPD into what critics have called a mini-Central Intelligence Agency with agents who monitor Muslims and dissidents.

The suit alleges that the NYPD’s surveillance program violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment by limiting the free exercise of religion and denying Muslims equal protection under the Constitution. At the heart of the filing is the contention that the NYPD has deemed religious Muslims a suspect class and that the spy program has chilled Muslim community life.

The ACLU notes that the intellectual underpinnings of the surveillance program–laid out in a 2007 NYPD paper on Muslim radicalization–treats religious Muslims as inherently suspect. And lawyers say that the surveillance program based on this notion has damaged Muslim life in New York City.

For instance, mosque attendance at places known to be under NYPD surveillance has gone down. One plaintiff who came under police surveillance, Imam Hamid Hassan Raza, now records his sermons because he fears that the police could take his remarks out of context. The leader of Masjid Al-Ansar, a Brooklyn mosque, Raza also steers clear of discussing certain religious topics and current events.

Another plaintiff in the suit is Asad Dandia, a Brooklyn resident who detailed his “life under NYPD surveillance” in a blog post published by the ACLU. Dandia is a leader of a charity organization called Muslims Giving Back. In 2012, Shaimur Rahman, now known as a former police informant who has since quit his spying activities and denounced the NYPD, befriended Dandia. Rahman became involved in Muslims Giving Back, and slept at Dandia’s house on one occasion.

In October 2012, Rahman revealed that he was a police informant. The revelation greatly impacted Dandia’s group. A leader at Dandia’s mosque asked him to stop meeting there. He stopped posting picture of his charity work online because he was worried it would draw the attention of the police. “Our sense of community and trust has been damaged, and our organization’s reputation and legitimacy has suffered,” writes Dandia. “The NYPD surveillance program has made it harder for me to practice my religion, even though I have done nothing wrong. I am taking part in the lawsuit filed today so that I may again practice my religion freely, without fear.”

This federal lawsuit is the third legal action to be initiated against the NYPD’s spy program targeting Muslims. Currently, civil rights lawyers are embroiled in a lawsuit alleging the NYPD is violating what are known as the Handschu guidelines, or regulations that govern how the NYPD can conduct surveillance of political or religious groups. And in 2012, a lawsuit was filed in New Jersey alleging that Muslims there had their Constitutional rights violated by NYPD spying that crossed state lines.

The federal lawsuit isn’t the only action putting heat on the NYPD.

The day before the ACLU announced their lawsuit, a state Senate panel in New Jersey advanced legislation that would require police from out of state to notify New Jersey authorities of their operations. The legislation is a response to the revelations that the NYPD monitored student groups in Rutgers and mapped the Muslim community in Newark. Those news reports sparked outrage from New Jersey politicians, though the Attorney General there ruled that the NYPD had broken no laws. New Jersey police have cooperated in the past with NYPD spying operations.

“No doubt we must protect our country against the threat of terrorism, but not at the expense of civil liberties. The Attorney General’s review into the NYPD surveillance operation found no laws were broken, but a line was definitely crossed,” New Jersey Assemblyman Charles Mainor told The Star-Ledger’s Ryan Hutchins.

The bill does not bar the surveillance, but requires the NYPD to notify prosecutors of their operations two days before beginning surveillance and also permits officials to seek a court injunction against the spying if police fail to notify officials beforehand.

The ACLU in New Jersey welcomed the bill, but cautioned that it wasn’t enough.

In New York City, legislators are also advancing a set of bills aimed at the NYPD’s excesses. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a leading mayoral candidate, recently announced that she would bypass a hold that a Queens Councilman had placed on police reform legislation. The bills under consideration would create an Inspector General for the NYPD and would strengthen a ban on racial profiling by the police.

If established, an Inspector General could investigate the NYPD’s surveillance program and issue recommendations on reform.

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Where is the NYPD and the outrage when two guys want to use x-ray’s to kill enemies of Israel? Where are the congressional hearings? What if they were two muslim men? What would the reaction have been?

it’s about time! they deserve to be dragged thru the courts, i hope it gets lots of press. thanks for your perseverance in coverage alex. much appreciated.

Niemoller: First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I… Read more »

I have great hope, but little faith in the US judiciary. Historically, they’ve been a useless band of robed cravens, at best; lickspittles unwilling to slow even the harshest administrative evils. Fred Korematsu could have told you all about it. Oh, I’m sure that one day, well after the fact, the US Gov. will issue a weepy statement denouncing this stuff, plead never again act like this, and maybe build a nice monument in Washington,… Read more »