Posted by on February 23, 2012 in Blog

The New York Police Department is under scrutiny—but in an ironic twist, it’s the Arab American and American Muslim communities that are putting the NYPD under the looking glass. And this time, we have support from Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Rob Menendez (D-NJ) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

By way of background, we learned in 2011 that the NYPD had been sending undercover officers (“rakers”) into Arab American and Muslim neighborhoods to monitor community members’ actions, and employing “mosque crawlers” to monitor sermons. They’d even established a unit “tasked with scanning arrestees for potential informants.” What does this mean in real terms? It meant asking the New York Taxi Commission to submit a list of all Pakistani taxi drivers with minor infractions—and using those traffic violations as leverage to persuade Muslim cabbies to become police informants.

Wondering who would devise such a plan? How about the CIA? No joke, the NYPD had an undercover CIA employee help build its intelligence programs. Despite federal prohibitions against the CIA conducting domestic surveillance, the agent maintained offices in both NYPD and CIA headquarters while he designed the “rakers” and “mosque crawlers” programs.

In 2011, the NYPD came under fire yet again for using a film titled The Third Jihad: Radical Islam's Vision for America as part of its police training. NYPD claimed the film had been shown “a couple of times,” but it was later revealed that the film was seen by some 1,500 officers. Produced and funded by The Clarion Fund, The Third Jihad is fictional propaganda at its worst, a purported documentary with footage of an Islamic flag flying over the White House. The film also features interviews with various officials and “experts,” including…wait for it…New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.  Kelly originally denied participating in the film, but his memory improved when it came out that he’d provided filmmaker Erik Werth with a 90-minute interview.

And in the last week, more news broke: it turns out that the NYPD has conducted surveillance operations as far afield as Pennsylvania and Connecticut. They joined one Muslim Student Association on a whitewater rafting trip and reporting that they’d (shockingly?) “prayed at least four times” and that “much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam.”

The bad news is that Mayor Bloomberg is defending NYPD’s programs—at least it’s out-of-jurisdiction surveillance programs—saying “We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place.” Much to his credit, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee shot back “[Terrorism] does not justify transforming our society from a democracy to one where the police are free to spy on people solely based on their faith."

The good news is that New Jersey’s officials are fighting back. Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, where mosques and neighborhoods were subject to NYPD surveillance, says the spying is “deeply offensive.” Apparently the NYPD submitted questions to Newark officials and asked for a tour of the city, but, says Booker, “if anyone in my police department had known this was a blanket investigation of individuals based on nothing but their religion… it would have merited a far sterner response.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called the reports “disturbing," and said that the New Jersey Attorney General will "get to the bottom of it." And indeed, the Attorney General’s office has gotten numerous requests, including one from the ACLU, calling for an investigation into the NYPD’s surveillance activities in Newark. Sen. Menendez went a step further, asking US Attorney General Eric Holder and CIA Director Robert Petraeus to look into the matter, citing grave concerns about “law enforcement efforts focused on individuals who were not suspected of any criminal activity.”

And the Arab American Institute is monitoring the situation, not just in New York, but with federal law enforcement agencies, as well. Following a meeting with AAI last week, the FBI announced that it is eliminating the use of 700 training documents that included factual errors, were in poor taste, or promoted stereotypes of Arabs Americans and Muslims. And we continue to meet with the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to make sure that their training resources don’t propagate ethnic and religious discrimination. DHS is poised to issue new training guidelines in the coming weeks, so stay tuned to find out whether, and to what extent, the Department has improved its programs.

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