NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Years after the New York City Police Department targeted them for surveillance, New Jersey Muslims reached a long-awaited settlement Thursday that awards them thousands of dollars in damages and input toward reform efforts.
A former sergeant in the U.S. Army, Syed Hassan has spent the past six years leading a federal complaint in Newark that accused the NYPD of spying on New Jersey’s Muslim communities in violation of their the First and 14th Amendments.
“For me, joining this lawsuit was an effort to defend the Constitution,” the soldier told reporters this morning in a phone conference celebrating the case’s conclusion.
The 30-page settlement agreement provides $75,000 to five people, who will receive between $1,500 and $5,000 each, as well as five businesses and organizations, whose awards range between $5,000 and $25,000. Their attorneys will receive $950,000 in legal fees.
The NYPD also agreed to beef up guidelines protecting the privacy of religious and political minorities, giving those groups greater ability to voice their grievances and shape policy.
“The resolution of this case affirms and enhances the NYPD’s commitment to conducting effective investigations to prevent crime and terrorism,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement. “This has occurred while also protecting the constitutional rights and freedoms that every NYPD employee takes a sworn oath to uphold.”
Like a similar settlement from two years ago, today’s beef up a more than 30-year-old consent decree in the case Handschu v. Special Services Division, which tackled the NYPD’s Red Scare investigations of political groups in the name of deterring communist activities.
The Handschu guidelines, as they became known, weakened after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the Muslim surveillance cases have steadily restrengthened their privacy safeguards.
“Specifically, the city agrees that all NYPD law enforcement activities related to investigations involving political activity in New Jersey must have a valid law enforcement purpose and conform to the Constitution and laws of the United States, including activities protected by the First Amendment, and that the NYPD shall not conduct investigations in which race, religion or ethnicity is a substantial or motivating factor,” today’s settlement states.
The deal also gives New Jersey Muslims the opportunity to shape the NYPD’s first-ever policy guide governing the Intelligence Bureau’s activities, which will be posted publicly.
Reflecting on his six-year struggle for such gains, Hassan reflected: “I did not know the wheels of justice were this slow.”
Farhana Khera, the executive Director of Muslim Advocates, noted that Hassan had filed his case inside Newark’s Martin Luther King Courthouse.
“Today’s settlement sends a message to all police forces across the country: Simply being Muslim is not a basis for suspicion and cannot be a basis for surveillance,” she told reporters.
The lawsuit had been part of a flurry of litigation sparked by an Associated Press investigation in 2012, documenting the emergence of the department’s now-shuttered Demographics Unit in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning series revealed that the NYPD spied on at least 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 retail stores, two grade schools and two Muslim Student Associations in New Jersey.
“This is what happened here under the guise of national security or ‘making us safe,’” said Hassan, who will receive $5,000 from today’s settlement.
W. Deen Shareef, whose Council of Imams in New Jersey will receive $22,500 in compensation, noted that the NYPD’s surveillance damaged the trust built with local communities.
“If we’re trying to enhance public safety, this is not the way to go about doing it,” Shareef noted.
The last lawsuit to settle, the New Jersey case turned a corner after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit skewered the NYPD’s dragnet as a new spin on old discrimination.
“We have been down similar roads before,” U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro wrote in 2015. “Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight—that ‘[l]oyalty is a matter of the heart and mind[,] not race, creed, or color.’”
No part of the settlement forces the NYPD to admit misconduct.
“Nothing contained in this stipulation shall be deemed to be an admission by defendant, or an adjudication, or finding on the merits of any of plaintiffs’ allegations, assertions, or claims made in this action, nor an admission by defendant that it has in any manner or way violated the rights of plaintiffs or the rights of any other person or entity,” it states.
Drawing upon his military experience, however, Hassan quipped that the NYPD’s refusal to confirm or deny wrongdoing is as good as an acknowledgement.
“A police department’s failure to admit wrongdoing is akin to a congressman’s no comment,” he said. “You know he did it. He’s just not going to acknowledge it.”
Harder proof than that will be more difficult to come by in the wake of a recent ruling from New York’s highest court, which allows the NYPD to refuse to either confirm or deny the existence of records that they contend relate to counterterrorism investigations.
That freedom-of-information case was brought by Muslim men who sought documents on the department’s surveillance of their communities.