Civilian on NYPD-probes panel reports fewer investigations

A civilian helping review New York Police Department probes involving Muslim communities says there were fewer requests in the last year for investigations affecting First Amendment rights covered by a longstanding court order.

Stephen Robinson, a former federal judge, was appointed last year to the "Handschu Committee," which reviews police probes affecting religious and political activity.

His report Thursday came in a decades-old court case that challenged surveillance of war protesters in the 1960s and '70s. The committee was formed after a 1980s consent decree established the Handschu Guidelines, named after the lead plaintiff, Barbara Handschu. The guidelines were relaxed after Sept. 11 to help police fight terrorism.

A civilian was added to the committee after lawsuits alleged mosques and community leaders were wrongly the target of NYPD surveillance. The lawsuits were filed after The Associated Press reported that the NYPD infiltrated Muslim student groups and put informants in mosques as part of a broad effort to prevent terrorist attacks beginning after the 2001 attacks.

In his annual report, Robinson said 5 percent fewer applications for investigations were submitted from March 2017 to this March than in the previous year. Of those that were submitted, 14 were denied while only four were denied during the previous year, he said.

Overall, Robinson's report gave a positive outlook on the police department's effort to abide by the guidelines.

Robinson said he was given more access to information about the police investigations than required. He said the police department had met deadlines for extending and closing investigations with 100 percent accuracy.

Ramzi Kassem, the founder of CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility), said in a release that the length of some investigations remained shocking, particularly those focused on Muslims.

"Nothing in the report indicates this dramatic over-policing of a minority group has ceased or even changed. We hope the civilian representative will examine closely if this outcome is consistent with the NYPD's legal obligation not to discriminate," he said.

Hina Shamsi, National Security Project director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the report showed Robinson is asking pointed questions and making a positive difference.

"Although the police department keeps secret the total number of investigations it conducts, it's important that the number of investigation requests denied after scrutiny is higher than it was last year. We look to the civilian representative to ensure that the NYPD abides by the new standards, and that bias-based suspicion of Muslims or any other minority plays no role in the NYPD's investigation decisions," Shamsi said.