NEW YORK – Police officials say a legal settlement over their department's counterterrorism tactics won't curtail a practice that they call essential to protecting the city but that also has made Muslims leery: using paid informants and undercover investigators to hunt for threats.
The city announced Thursday that it had settled two civil rights lawsuits accusing the New York Police Department of infiltrating mosques and other locations in Muslim communities in illegal and usually fruitless fishing expeditions for terror suspects.
In what the New York Civil Liberties Union called a "landmark settlement," the police department agreed to reinforce guidelines governing police surveillance and to allow a civilian lawyer, appointed by the mayor, to attend meetings about secret investigations.
But police officials made clear the deal won't restrict an intelligence gathering operation they've credited with helping uncover and thwart terror plots.
"I don't wake up tomorrow morning without any authorities I didn't have today," John Miller, the NYPD's counterterrorism and intelligence director, said following the announcement.
The lawsuits were prompted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press investigation in 2012 into the police department's efforts to hunt for would-be terrorists in Muslim communities, an effort that included cataloging Muslim neighborhoods, infiltrating Muslim student groups, putting informants in mosques and listening to sermons.
Police had denied all along ever putting anyone under surveillance absent a credible lead of criminal wrongdoing and gave no ground on that point in the settlement.
The settlement did clarify language regarding "investigative predicate," the justification to start an investigation, saying it requires "an allegation or information that is articulable and factual."
Ramzi Kassem, director of Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, which brought one of the suits with the NYCLU and the American Civil Liberties Union, said on Friday that he believes the agreement will help prevent the department from trampling civil rights going forward.
"The lawsuit wasn't about ending all NYPD undercover operations — that was never the goal," said Kassem, also a professor at City University of New York School of Law. "It was about getting the department to follow the rules."
The police appear to have continued to rely on a tactic of sending undercover officers to interact with Muslim student groups in a hunt for radicals.
One of the more recent cases involved an officer who students at a Brooklyn college say indiscriminately spied on them before helping uncover an alleged scheme by two women to build a homemade bomb.
Whether the department followed the rules in the pending terror case against the women, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, remains in dispute. The women have pleaded not guilty.
A criminal complaint doesn't say why they were initially targeted in an investigation that resulted in their arrests on charges they plotted an attack on American soil, but it indicates they were befriended in 2014 by an unidentified female NYPD officer wearing a wire and apparently pretending to be a converted Muslim of Turkish decent.
Students at Brooklyn College told the website Gothamist that the agent had first surfaced at least four years earlier at the school, where she attended an Islamic student group meeting and took a profession of faith. Over time she also turned up at student gatherings at Muslim community centers, the students said.
Civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver — a lawyer for Ahmed Ferhani, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to conspiracy in a plot that brought allegations of entrapment by the NYPD — called the settlement a good start. However, he added, "I don't think there's anything in the settlement that would prevent the police from engaging in the type of predatory policing involved in Ahmed's case."
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.