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Civil Rights

Settlement After NYPD Illegally Targeted Muslims for Surveillance

— March 8, 2017

The New York City Police Department has agreed to settle in a lawsuit which alleged the NYPD illegally targeted Muslims for surveillance.

The litigation was originally filed in 2013 following numerous complaints that the Department was stalking Muslims and infiltrating mosques. Ever since September 11th, 2001, the police had been actively monitoring the greater Islamic community in each of the five boroughs. The surveillance tactics were publicized after an investigation by the Associated Press, which revealed how the city was keeping records on where Muslims prayed, shopped, and ate.

Plainclothes officers, called “rakers” or “mosque crawlers,” according to The New York Yorker, would eavesdrop on conversations and sometimes try baiting Muslims into making inflammatory or anti-American comments. The operation was so secret that David Cohen, former head of the NYPD’s “Demographics Division,” issued instructions that a spokesman neither confirm nor deny its existence.

The Associated Press investigation went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, with its repercussions playing into New York’s 2013 mayoral election.

Thousands of names were found to have been placed in secret police files. The American Civil Liberties Union was among the first organizations to file a lawsuit in Brooklyn. The ACLU claimed that untold scores of Muslims were harmed by what amounted to “suspicionless surveillance.” Attorneys also claimed that the NYPD had violated a convention known as the Handschu Guidelines, which limit how police in New York can pursue suspects on the basis of either religious or political affiliation.

    Muslims at a mosque in New York City; image courtesy of Jewel Samad, AP

The tentative settlement is expected to solidify a number of existing rules as well as cement new policies to prevent race- and religion-based discrimination on the part of law enforcement groups. A civilian representative will also be appointed to oversee any further complaints. Reuters reports that the representative will only be removed from their position after the court deems sufficient progress to have been made by the NYPD.

“For the first time, this watershed settlement puts much-needed constraints on law enforcement’s discriminatory and unjustified surveillance of Muslims,” said Hina Shamsi, who directs the ACLU’s National Security Project. “At a time of rampant anti-Muslim hysteria and prejudice nationwide, this agreement with the country’s largest police force sends a forceful message that bias-based policing is unlawful, harmful, and unnecessary.”

The settlement comes amidst heightened concern over an outburst in anti-immigrant sentiments and hate crimes nationwide. Over the past two weeks, several Indian immigrants were shot dead or injured after being told to go back to “their country.”

Muslims and other minority groups in United States should be able to appreciate the de-legitimization of a department which played lip service to hateful lines and drew divisions between ethnic and religious communities in New York.

After years of collecting information about where Egyptians played soccer and how often Albanian men gathered for chess tourneys, the Demographics Division is officially being shut down with new oversights implemented.

In sixteen years, the Division – a brainchild of a former CIA operative – never managed to generate a single lead.


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