NYPD Surveillance: The Fox and the Henhouse

About the Suffering of US Muslims
By Cyrus McGoldrick
Human Rights Advocate — NY

A demonstrator holds a placard as others march during a protest in New York down Fifth Avenue on June 17, 2012 - REuters
Community advocates are watching New York City’s candidates for Mayor and City Council for support for their human rights. (Reuters)
NYPD Surveillance: The Fox and the Henhouse

The landmark 1985 Handschu Guidelines, which represent a court order banning illegal surveillance practices by the New York Police Department (NYPD), do not seem to have reined in the police's abusive powers against US Muslims. Despite the absence of evidence of any criminal activity, NYPD continues to illegally investigate and surveil Muslims living in New York, and the reason is … being Muslims.

In February, a team of lawyers overseeing the Handschu court order against the New York City Police Department filed a motion demanding a judge to stop the department’s ongoing and illegal surveillance practices.

The motion, filed in the US District Court in Manhattan, cited the NYPD Intelligence Division documents leaked to lawyers and journalists, some of which were published by the Associated Press in their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series.

Ancestries of Interest 

One of the documents, entitled “The Demographics Unit,” reveals the outline of a unit tasked to collect information on all Muslims within an undesignated jurisdiction, with the objectives to map “residential concentrations” and “ethnic hotspots” based on 29 “ancestries of interest.” Evidence of specific criminal activity, which is required by law for a warrant for surveillance of any person or institution, is only one of many “key indicators” that include mosques, religious schools, community centers, local newspapers, and places of business.

Signifiers that an American Muslim might be “radicalizing” include growing a beard, praying regularly, frequenting mosques, frequenting bookstores, quitting smoking, and engaging in social and political activism.

The fourteen other documents include: dossiers on individuals, businesses, student groups, NGOs and houses of worship in the Albanian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Iranian and Palestinian communities; in Newark, Suffolk and Nassau Counties; Muslim Students Associations across New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; and political organizations, including progressive peace activists and community organizations protesting the acquittal of the police officers that murdered Sean Bell.

The Handschu settlement was a response to the NYPD’s violent tactics in cracking down on anti-war activists and community organizations – specifically the Black Panthers -- and restrained the police department from collecting and storing information on the free speech unless there is specific evidence of a crime being committed. That evidence would have to be presented to the “Handschu authority” outside of the NYPD.

In 2002, the NYPD won a partial relaxation of these rules, at which point the “authority” became obscured. In 2007, the NYPD Intelligence Division published a document entitled “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” a theory that the practice of Islam itself was enough of a criminal predicate to justify the comprehensive surveillance of American Muslim communities, without any evidence or warrant.

Radicalizing by Quitting Smoking

The authors constructed a four-step process from “pre-radicalization” to “jihadization.” Signifiers that an American Muslim might be “radicalizing” include growing a beard, praying regularly, frequenting mosques, frequenting bookstores, quitting smoking, and engaging in social and political activism.

Despite immediate public outcry that the “Radicalization” report was criminalizing constitutionally protected religious and political expression, it remains online, and was reinforced by NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s contribution to the anti-Islam propaganda film “The Third Jihad.”

After Kelly and Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne claimed that the film was shown only once, it was revealed in a Freedom of Information Act request that the Clarion Fund production film was played repeatedly in training sessions for NYPD counterterrorism officers over the course of several months.

The NYPD’s files on law-abiding American Muslims are full of free speech and religious practices, and completely devoid of evidence of criminal activity. In a deposition, NYPD Chief Thomas Galati admitted that in his tenure as head of the unit not a single criminal lead was produced by the surveillance.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is legally prohibited from spying on Americans, but former CIA analyst David Cohen and several current CIA officers were involved in the development of the covert program, which Cohen called in his memoirs a “domestic CIA.” After an internal probe, the CIA announced in January 2012 that they would remove their officers from the joint program, citing a lack of effective oversight.

“Police State”

The Department of Justice and the FBI were engaging in surveillance practices through “community outreach” events for American Muslims.

The recent motion filed in the Handschu cases argues that the NYPD’s own documents prove the violation of the court order, let alone the US Constitution, and that the time span of the documents proves that they are keeping the records, also illegal. Search and surveillance warrants are provided by courts to allow officers to conduct an investigation of a crime, but the NYPD’s open-ended surveillance is interminable and the practice of what some legal experts are calling a “police state.”

National and city-wide coalitions, including Communities United for Police Reform and the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, are mounting pressure for the passage of the “Community Safety Act” in the New York City Council. The package of four bills — aimed at protecting New Yorkers from racial profiling, illegal searches, and corruption — already boasts the signatures of a majority of the Council.

As outgoing Mayor Bloomberg has pledged to veto the package, and with this fall’s mayoral election still up in the air, advocates are pressing for a veto-proof “super majority” for the “Community Safety Act.”

In the face of such widespread unity of diverse communities against police abuse, including repeated invitations to a public town hall hosted by united Muslim community groups, the police department has instead hand-picked several local imams and NGO directors to form a “Muslim Advisory Council” in the fall of 2012. One source privy to the discussions related that the dismantling or reform of discriminatory police practices was “not on the table.” Invitations to a public forum remain unanswered, with the Commissioner opting instead for private outreach events to mosques with collaborating imams.

Since the first Associated Press story broke in August of 2011, Muslim and civil rights advocates have called on city, state, and federal officials to investigate and reign in the New York City Police Department. Letters from advocacy groups and 35 members of the House of Representatives in May and June 2012 to the Department of Justice requesting a federal investigation have been ignored.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in Freedom of Information Act requests filed over the last several years, discovered the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) were engaging in similar surveillance practices through “community outreach” events for American Muslims.

With momentum building from resistance to police brutality and “stop-and-frisk;”  warrantless surveillance, infiltration by informants, agent provocateurs, and entrapment; and the violent crackdown on Occupy movements and political organizations, community advocates are watching New York City’s candidates for Mayor and City Council for support for their human rights.

Related Links:
US Muslim Civil Rights in 2012 Elections
US Muslim Persecuted for Aiding Palestinians
‘Why Islam’ Counters US Islamophobes

Cyrus McGoldrick is an American Muslim activist and artist of Iranian and Irish descent. He is the Outreach Director for the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, and the Muslim chaplain at Manhattan College.

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