The New York Police Department is facing increasing criticism, once again, for what some are calling inappropriate surveillance in minority communities. Even in the absence of evidence of wrongdoing, the NYPD has been running an aggressive domestic surveillance unit that has infiltrated Muslim communities throughout the Northeast.
“Because of nineteen terrorists who committed the acts of 9/11, all Muslims are being criminalized and investigated… When public institutions such as law enforcement advocate for discriminatory practices against certain people, you end up with acts of discrimination and violations of the basic rights of American citizens ” said Aref Assaf, Ph.D, president of the American Arab Forum, a think tank based in New Jersey.
In August of 2011, the Associated Press began publishing a series of reports, which indicated that the NYPD has been monitoring mosques, community groups and student organizations in New York State, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Daisy Khan, co-founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement says that the NYPD’s actions are likely to lead to a deepening of mistrust between Muslims and American law enforcement.
“As tax payers, we want to feel like we are treated as equal citizens. When a community feels marginalized or feels that it is being preyed upon, especially when it has not been asked to cooperate, then of course it has that [chilling] effect,” said Khan
This is not the first time that the NYPD has been accused of spying on citizens. The recent reports have given some observers a sense of déjà vu. On February 13th of this year, Len Levitt, a veteran police reporter and blogger for the Huffington Post, reported that Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) was the subject of a confidential NYPD investigation in 2008.
Classified NYPD reports which were obtained by Levitt’s website NYPDConfedential.com, state that an informant infiltrated NAN as it organized protests following the acquittal of three NYPD detectives in the Sean Bell shooting case.
In November 2006, Bell, who was unarmed, was killed in a barrage of 50 police bullets on the eve of his wedding outside of a Queens, N.Y nightclub. According to Levitt, the informant’s report on the NAN meeting included descriptions of scheduled acts of civil disobedience and the names of several local black community leaders.
Attorney Michael Hardy, NAN’s General Counsel, released a statement saying that NAN is contemplating a lawsuit against the NYPD. Several black leaders have since released a statement denouncing the NYPD for spying on NAN. “The NYPD’s spying actions are an intolerable abuse by law enforcement, and remind us of the bad days when J. Edgar Hoover recklessly spied on Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s.” said Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League. “Its time for NYPD to disclose the full extent and nature of its spying operation on all civil rights organizations.”
Morial’s statement refers to COINTELPRO, a series of FBI counterintelligence programs that were largely conducted in the 1950’s and 60’s. COINTELPRO operations set out to neutralize so called political dissidents like civil rights leaders and anti war groups.
Efforts to discredit Dr. King through rumor have been traced back to the FBI during this period. According to Levitt, similar efforts have been leveraged against Rev. Sharpton by the NYPD. Levitt claims that in 1998, two undercover police officers told him that they were previously instructed to spread rumors that Sharpton was a homosexual.
There are some who support the NYPD’s surveillance techniques. On Monday, a coalition of American Muslim organizations gathered for a press conference outside of the NYPD’s headquarters to express support for the system. They say that the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim groups is a successful counter terrorism technique that roots out extremists.
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, one of the organizers of the event and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, says that the coalition does not believe Muslim’s constitutional rights should be violated. However, he says with rights come responsibilities.
“We also as Muslims have responsibilities as American citizens and those responsibilities include not only preserving our own rights, but keeping America secure,” said Jasser, from his office in Arizona.
Dr. Jasser acknowledged that more transparency on the part of the NYPD regarding the scope and purpose of surveillance techniques might have quelled some of the criticism that the department is now receiving. The process has been met with questions and criticism by neighboring law enforcement and elected officials, like Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who claims he was not appraised of the surveillance that occurred in his state.
However, Dr. Jasser says that media attention exacerbates the issue, which can increase the chances of radicalizing those who are prone to Islamic extremism. “The media plays a role in exaggerating that victimization by over emphasizing information and negative stories without any evidence,” says Jasser.
Follow Chelsea-Lyn Rudder on Twitter at @ChelseaLynR