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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Landmark NYPD Settlement on Muslim Spying

MANHATTAN (CN) - Decades-old rules meant to constrain the New York City Police Department from violating the civil rights of innocent citizens will get some meat on their bones to settle lawsuits over spying on Muslims citywide, papers filed in court Thursday show.

The reforms implemented today limit the use of confidential informants, impose mandatory reviews of long-term investigations, install a civilian whistleblower in the NYPD, and ban probes where "race, religion or ethnicity is a substantial or motivating factor," according to an exhibit filed in the case.

Another provision of the settlement requires the NYPD to remove from its website the discredited 2007 report "Radicalization in the West," which has been panned for treating a man's growth of a beard as a sign of extremism.

Arthur Eisenberg with the New York City Liberties Union applauded what he called a "win for all New Yorkers."

"It will curtail practices that wrongly stigmatize individuals simply on the basis of their religion, race or ethnicity," Eisenberg, who headed the Brooklyn branch of the litigation, said in a statement. "At the same time, the NYPD's investigative practices will be rendered more effective by focusing on criminal behavior. The preservation of constitutional freedoms and the protection of public safety are not incompatible."

U.S. District Judge Charles Haight must still approve the settlement before it can take effect. In addition to a joint motion seeking entry of the settlement, attorneys for the plaintiffs filed a memorandum extolling the deal's features.

The NYPD set up a so-called Demographics Unit shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to spy and collected dossiers on mosques, hookah bars, pastry shops and other Muslim gathering places across the city.

The Associated Press exploded more than a decade of official denials about the program in a 2012 series of articles that won the Pulitzer Prize.

Among the journalists' revelations were that the unit had infiltrated mosques across New York City, New Jersey and upstate New York as part of police investigations so invasive that the FBI refused to participate in them.

A year later, litigation cropped up in federal courts in Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey opposing the program. Brooklyn imam Hamid Hassan Raza led the lawsuit filed in his borough, and Army veteran Syed Farhaj Hassan is heading the New Jersey case.

Raza, who preaches at Brooklyn's Masjid Al-Ansar, said in a statement that the deal makes "important progress" bound to protect "not only for New York Muslim communities but for other minorities in New York and beyond."

The Manhattan lawsuit stood apart in that it began as an investigation over whether the NYPD's spying violated a 31-year-old consent decree in the case of Handschu v. Special Services Division.

That landmark case, named after the former lawyer for the Black Panthers, involved opposition to the NYPD's history of McCarthyite investigations into supposed communist activities.

Judge Haight first implemented the so-called Handschu rules in 1985 but loosened the standards two years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The revised decree lowered bar that police would have to meet to probe a political group.

Today's settlement of the legal wrangling in Manhattan and Brooklyn beefs up the amended rules.

New York City does not admit wrongdoing under the terms of the settlement.

The NYPD's deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism John Miller emphasized that the deal "does not weaken" the department's ability to investigate terrorism.

"The terms of the proposed settlement, which are the result of extensive and thoughtful conversations between representatives of both parties and NYPD leadership, include the incorporation of long standing best and sound NYPD practices into the Handschu Guidelines, which were last modified in 2003," he noted.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the settlement shows his administration's commitment to strengthen the "relationship between our administration and communities of faith so that residents of every background feel respected and protected."

"New York City's Muslim residents are strong partners in the fight against terrorism, and this settlement represents another important step toward building our relationship with the Muslim community," de Blasio said in a statement. "Our city's counterterrorism forces are the best in the world, and the NYPD will continue working tirelessly to keep our city safe in the fight against terror while respecting our residents' constitutional rights."

De Blasio has not yet revealed who he will appoint as civilian whistleblower, who will serve a five-year term.

That appointee must report Handschu violations confidentially to the NYPD commissioner, and "systemic" problem directly to the judge.

Once the court gets involved, complaints of violations will be resolved under seal unless the class council litigates the matter on the public docket.

The settlement does not affect the New Jersey lawsuit, which the Third Circuit revived in October.

Attorneys for the pending case at the Center for Constitutional Rights quoted from that legal victory in a statement.

"As a historic court ruling in our case reminded the de Blasio administration in October, 'We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II,'" the group said in a statement. "We must ensure the same mistakes are not repeated."

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