NYPD Surveillance of Muslim Communities Decreased: Report

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Photo by Sean MacEntee via flickr

A federal court released Thursday the first annual report of former federal judge Stephen Robinson, the civilian representative appointed to oversee reforms in the wake of wrongful New York Police Department (NYPD) surveillance of Muslim communities.

Judge Robinson’s report affords the public a first opportunity to observe the workings of the “Handschu Committee,” the body charged with reviewing NYPD investigations of First Amendment-protected religious and political activity for compliance with a judicially-enforced agreement.

The report disclosed that since the civilian representative’s appointment, the NYPD has made fewer applications for such investigations, and the committee has denied significantly more applications. The average length of investigations approved by the committee has decreased as well, from 427 days to 340.

Judge Robinson expressed privacy and freedom-of-expression concerns over investigations and the NYPD’s use of unreliable information and sourcing. In his report, he verified that the NYPD continues to monitor New Yorker’s and others’ social media accounts.

The court created the position of a civilian representative as settlement to claims brought in two cases against the NYPD, Raza v City of New York and Handschu v Special Services.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project of Main Street Legal Services at CUNY School of Law, among others, brought Raza in 2013 on behalf of mosques, religious and community leaders, and a charitable organization. Plaintiffs claimed that the NYPD violated the U.S. and New York State Constitutions by singling out entire communities for investigations based on religion.

Handschu is a long-standing class action suit originating in 2013 alleging that the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims violated protections of New Yorker’s lawful political and religious activities from unwarranted monitoring.

The civilian representative appointed in the 2017 settlement of the two cases is tasked with reporting to the court if the NYPD violates Handschu Guidelines, the rules governing NYPD surveillance of political and First Amendment-protected activity. The court originally ordered the guidelines in 1985, but weakened them in 2003 following NYPD requests for broader surveillance powers.

Although Judge Robinson’s report increases transparency of NYPD activities, CLEAR founding director Ramzi Kassem expressed dissatisfaction with the impact on NYPD surveillance practices thus far.

“While it is heartening that during the civilian representative’s tenure, the average length of all Handschu investigations has decreased, it remains shocking that, on average, covert police investigations of New Yorkers’ and others’ protected speech last over 340 days,” Kassem said in an  ACLU statement released Friday on the decision.

“That holds especially true when these investigations focus almost exclusively on American Muslims.”

“In August 2016,” he said, “the inspector general determined that Muslim-identified individuals or organizations featured in more than 95 percent of all NYPD intelligence files reviewed. Nothing in [Judge Robinson’s] report indicates this dramatic over-policing of a minority group has ceased or even changed.”

This report was prepared by Elena Schwartz, a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments welcome.

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