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Court Releases Report on NYPD Reforms after Landmark Muslim Surveillance Settlement

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NEW YORK – A federal court overseeing unprecedented reforms in the wake of wrongful NYPD surveillance of Muslim communities made public late yesterday the second annual report of an appointed Civilian Representative, Stephen Robinson, a former federal judge. The report provides the public with an account by Judge Robinson of the workings of the “Handschu Committee,” a body that reviews NYPD investigations of First Amendment-protected religious and political activity for compliance with a judicially-enforced agreement. 

The report revealed that the committee has denied considerably more NYPD applications for such investigations since the Civilian Representative assumed his position. Fewer applications have also been put forward since the installation of  the Civilian Representative. The average length of investigations approved by the committee has dropped to 303 days a decrease of 125 days from the average length two years ago. The Civilian Representative also provides other statistics, including on requests to extend investigations.

According to his report, considerations Judge Robinson considers include privacy and free expression dangers posed by investigations, and the reliability of the NYPD’s use of information and sourcing. It is unclear, however, whether such considerations and any concerns were recorded in Handschu Committee minutes, which could inform future committee decision-making as well as possible additional oversight by the inspector general for the NYPD and by the New York City Council.

Judge Robinson also confirmed that the NYPD continues to monitor New Yorkers’ and others’ social media accounts. The report addresses this practice and notes that the Civilian Representative has demanded that the committee examine actual social media content,  and not simply summary descriptions when this content is invoked in support of an application to initiate or continue an investigation.

Lawyers for plaintiffs in both the Raza v. City of New York and Handschu v. Special Services Division cases reacted to the release of the Civilian Representative’s report:

Hina Shamsi, ACLU National Security Project director:

“We are hopeful that Judge Robinson’s presence and interventions help to keep the police on the right side of the Constitution, but unfortunately his second report doesn’t provide a robust enough picture to be sure. It’s hard to understand the importance of the bare statistics in the report. There’s no mention let alone assessment of the NYPD’s record on investigations of Muslims, which is the specific wrong that required Judge Robinson’s oversight role in the first place. The NYPD lost communities’ trust when it engaged in discriminatory surveillance, and a more complete picture of its work is needed to meaningfully advance the long process of restoring trust. ”

Ramzi Kassem, CLEAR founding director and CUNY professor of law:

“The Civilian Representative’s second report surfaces some alarming trends. In the past year, approved requests to extend NYPD Intelligence Bureau investigations went up by 30%. In 2016, the Inspector General found that more than 95% of these NYPD investigations focused on U.S. Muslims. Against that backdrop, we urge the Civilian Representative to examine more closely the entrenched over-policing of a minority group. Judge Robinson must also comply fully with the Handschu rules and must report whether he raised any objections in the past year, along with the basis for the objections, instead of merely stating in his recent report that he made no ‘formal objections.’ New Yorkers expect more from their Civilian Representative.”

Arthur Eisenberg, NYCLU legal director:

“This report is a reminder to New Yorkers and to the NYPD of the importance of the NYPD’s commitment to conduct its investigations of political activity in conformance with constitutional guarantees. This includes the right of individuals and organizations to be free from investigations in which race, religion or ethnicity are substantial or motivating factors.”

Jethro M. Eisenstein, Handschu attorney:

“We applaud Judge Robinson for embracing the spirit of the Modified Handschu Guidelines. His efforts are shaping the way the Handschu Committee operates, causing it to scrutinize requests to investigate protected religious and political activity with greater care.”   

The Court established the position of a civilian representative to settle claims in two cases against the NYPD, Raza v. City of New York and Handschu v. Special Services Division. Lawyers for Raza include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project of Main Street Legal Services at CUNY School of Law, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP. Lawyers for Handschu include the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Raza was brought in June 2013 on behalf of religious and community leaders, mosques, and a charitable organization alleging they were caught in the NYPD’s dragnet surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers. The suit charged that the NYPD violated the U.S. and New York State Constitutions by singling out and stigmatizing entire communities based on religion. The case sought systemic reforms to prevent law enforcement abuses.

The Handschu case is a long-standing class action that addresses surveillance by the NYPD of First Amendment-protected activity and that seeks to limit excessive and unreasonable investigatory practices. The rules governing NYPD surveillance of political and other First Amendment-protected activity are called Handschu Guidelines, originally ordered by the court in 1985 but weakened in 2003 following NYPD requests to the court. In 2013, lawyers in the Handschu case filed papers arguing that the NYPD’s investigations of Muslims violated a long-standing consent decree in the case that protects New Yorkers’ lawful political and religious activities from unwarranted NYPD surveillance.

Among provisions of the 2017 settlement of both cases was the appointment of a civilian representative empowered to report to the court at any time if there are violations of the Handschu Guidelines, and who is required to report to the court if there are systematic violations and to report to the court on an annual basis. This first report reveals that the NYPD has allowed the civilian representative access to the NYPD’s investigative process beyond what the settlement requires, including to investigative briefings and top officials within the Intelligence Bureau.

In addition to Imam Raza, the plaintiffs in the Raza case are Asad Dandia, Masjid Al-Ansar mosque, the charity Muslims Giving Back, Masjid At-Taqwa mosque, and Mohammad Elshinawy.

In addition to Shamsi, Kassem, and Eisenberg, lawyers on the Raza case include Ashley Gorski and Patrick Toomey of the ACLU, Naz Ahmad and Tarek Z. Ismail of CLEAR, Beth Haroules of the NYCLU, and Hector Gallegos, Kyle Mooney, and Adam Hunt of Morrison & Foerster LLP. Lawyers on the Handschu case are Eisenberg, Jethro M. Eisenstein, Martin R. Stolar, Paul G. Chevigny, and Franklin Siegel

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