NEW YORK – The New York Police Department disbanded a unit that once tracked the everyday lives of Muslims, but it has taken a tough stance in a heated legal battle over its continuing use of Muslim informants in terror threat investigations.
Muslim groups filed a civil rights lawsuit last year that asked a federal judge to declare the surveillance unconstitutional and halt it.
City lawyers struck back by suggesting the plaintiffs brought the attention on themselves with "rhetoric or their known, suspected or rumored associations with people or organizations of ill repute." The city then demanded any communications by the plaintiffs — which include two Brooklyn mosques, an imam, a Muslim charity — that mention terrorism, jihad or the war in Afghanistan as well as financial records from the mosques and charity, including names of donors.
The plaintiffs say the city is unjustly seeking information that's private. Disclosure of records from the mosque and the charity "would further alienate and chill congregants, members, donors and donees ... and thereby infringe on plaintiffs' right to free exercise, free speech and associational privacy," their lawyers wrote in court papers in late March.
The court fight is reinforcing skepticism about pledges by Mayor Bill de Blasio and police officials to be more sensitive than the previous administration to concerns about surveillance.
Last month, the NYPD announced it had disbanded the Demographics Unit, a team of detectives assigned to create databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Civil rights advocates, however, noted that the department wasn't committing to abandoning a practice adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks of using Muslim informants to try to detect and thwart terror threats.
The New York Times, citing internal NYPD documents, reported this week that the police department's Intelligence Division is continuing to debrief Muslims arrested for petty offenses to see if some could be persuaded to become informants. Asked about the program on Monday, De Blasio said he "wanted to know more about it" but declined further comment.
Police officials say the debriefings are not coercive conversations and have proven effective in identifying informants to help protect the city. City lawyers also say the nation's largest police department puts people under surveillance for legitimate investigative reasons, not because of their ethnicity or religion.
But Muslim advocates say the program sends the wrong message.
"Those who had looked to Mayor de Blasio for real meaningful changes in policing and relationships with Muslims are disappointed," Hina Shamsi, an American Civil Liberties Union on the case, said Monday.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, says critics of the program don't object to police recruiting informants who have a meaningful connection to suspected crimes, as in drug or mob cases. But most the Muslim men who have been approached "have zero information that's helpful. ... This is straight-up racial and religious profiling," she said.
A Muslim New Yorker, Hesham El-Meligy, recalled his dismay when he learned that a man he encountered at an Islamic bookstore in the early 2000s was an informant who police say uncovered a plot to blow up a Manhattan subway station. He claimed he overheard the informant trying to "incite" a dim-witted store worker to turn against the United States.
Reminders that informants are still in circulation "add to the distrust of government and law enforcement that's already there," said the Egypt-born El-Meligy, who works in a college admissions office.
"Unfortunately, we started suspecting each other as well," he said. "It creates an atmosphere of hysteria."