Partnering civil rights attorneys today filed papers in federal court seeking to stop the NYPD from creating dossiers on innocent Muslim New Yorkers and end the Police Department’s ability to initiate investigations into Muslim New Yorkers when there is no belief that they have engaged or are about to engage in unlawful activity or an act of terrorism. The filing is part of the Handschu v. Special Services Division proceeding, a decades-old federal case that has produced a series of court orders regulating NYPD surveillance of political and religious activity.
As documented by the Associated Press and other journalists, the NYPD has built a program dedicated to the total surveillance of Muslims in the greater New York City era. Officers have routinely monitored restaurants, bookstores and mosques and created detailed records of innocent conversations they’ve both had with individuals and eavesdropped on. The Department has also sent paid infiltrators into mosques, student associations and beyond to take photos, write down license plate numbers and keep notes on people for no reason other than because they are Muslim.
This dragnet surveillance program violates a consent decree in the Handschu case that restricts the Police Department’s ability to investigate or spy on people when there is no “reasonable indication” of unlawful activity or terrorism.
“Investigations of any community which are not based upon indications of crime create fear and erode the confidence of a community in the power of a legal system to protect it,” said Paul Chevigny, a professor of law at New York University and one of five attorneys on the Handschu case. “We brought this motion because even in the face of the startling evidence in the press reports, Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg have declared the NYPD will continue its intrusive secret surveillance program targeting completely innocent activities in Muslim communities, notwithstanding the prohibitions in the Handschu guidelines the NYPD is obliged to follow.”
Declarations of Muslim community leaders included in today’s court filing provide more detail of the harms that Muslims endure as a result of this surveillance program. In essence, they are afraid to go to community gatherings because they fear they would be branded as suspect or that their name could end up in a police file; they are afraid to talk to people and are suspicious of their neighbors because of the NYPD’s recruitment of informers; they feel violated and that they have no privacy because their community has been infiltrated; and they fear participating in any political action, even in protesting the Police Department’s tactics.
“The NYPD’s widespread surveillance of New York City’s Muslim communities rests upon the erroneous perception that all Muslims, regardless of their individual beliefs and values, are inherently suspect. In this way, the NYPD stigmatizes the Muslim communities by conveying the message that all Muslim have a proclivity toward violence and disloyalty,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg.
“One of the most troubling aspects of the Police Department’s surveillance program is that it is interminable,” said Jethro Eisenstein of Profeta & Eisenstein. “When surveillance is conducted to detect a crime, it stops when the crime is stopped or the danger has passed. But a surveillance program like the NYPD’s has no end. It just hurts more and more people as it continues.”
Queens resident Shamiur Rahman, a former NYPD infiltrator, was paid as much as $1,500 a month to spy on members of the Muslim community. In a declaration filed in court today, Rahman describes taking photos of people worshipping at mosques, writing down cell phone numbers on sign-up sheets for Islamic education classes, and taking photos of students and license plate numbers at lectures held by the Muslim Student Association at John Jay College.
“My NYPD boss Steve told me that the NYPD did not think the John Jay Muslim Student Association was doing anything wrong, they just wanted to make sure,” Rahman said. “The members of the MSA were religious Muslims, and according to my NYPD boss Steve, the NYPD considers being a religious Muslim a terrorism indicator.”
The Handschu case is a class-action lawsuit that was filed in 1971 in response to a similar widespread surveillance operation conducted by the NYPD in the late 1960s directed at anti-war protestors. The case was settled with a consent decree entered in 1985, in which the NYPD was prohibited from investigating political and religious organizations unless there was “specific information” that the group was linked to a crime that had been committed or was about to be committed. The Handschu team has successfully opposed a policy introduced by the NYPD after the 2004 Republican National Convention to videotape and conduct surveillance on protest activity and demonstrations in the absence of unlawful activity, and the case continues to bear upon surveillance directed at First Amendment-protected activities.
In addition to the injunctions targeting the Police Department’s taking of notes on innocent people and starting investigations on innocent people, the motion filed today also asks the court to appoint an auditor to monitor NYPD compliance with the Handschu guidelines as the Police Department has persistently flouted them.
In addition to Chevigny, Eisenberg and Eisenstein, attorneys on the case are Martin R. Stolar and Franklin Siegel.