Posted by on November 01, 2013 in Blog

By Isaac Levey
Legal Fellow

The Arab American Institute proudly signed on to a letter to the Department of Justice this week requesting an investigation of discriminatory practices at the New York Police Department (NYPD), particularly its program of spying on American Muslims. We joined with over a hundred faith, community, and civil rights organizations to request that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division investigate and bring an end to the disgraceful practices of religious and ethnic profiling that the NYPD has engaged in over the last decade.

We’ve followed news about the NYPD Intelligence Division (NYPD Intel)’s secret policy of Muslim surveillance through its “demographics unit” since news broke in 2011. The new book Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD's Secret Spying Unit and Bin Laden's Final Plot against America lays out the Department’s operations in chilling detail, showing how ‘rakers’ in NYPD Intel infiltrated Muslim and Arab-owned businesses, restaurants, and mosques. Officers amassed pages and pages of official police records on what imams said in their sermons, justifying continued surveillance on buildings and people entirely because they said things that, under the U.S. Constitution, they have the right to say. And the operations didn’t make New York any safer. The book shows how the “rhetoric files” drew no distinction between individuals who actually discussed hateful, violent plots against Americans, and those who simply disagreed with U.S. policy in the Middle East. It detailed how NYPD Intel spied on an imam who worked closely with them for years and encouraged his congregation and other Muslim New Yorkers to trust the police – right up to the moment he found out NYPD was doing exactly what he'd assured his congregants they would never do. Needless to say, trust and cooperation with the community is more important and helpful to law enforcement than any army of informers – and pervasive distrust is a weakness not even the most penetrating surveillance can overcome.

These programs are often defended by people who say they keep New York safe, and after all, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack since the surveillance started after the September 11, 2001 attacks. This is a logical fallacy – it’s equivalent to arguing that your dog protects you from lions because since you got the dog, you haven’t seen any lions – but it’s politically appealing. But even this handy political mantra is refuted by considering the case of Najibullah Zazi, an al-Qaeda operative in the U.S. who planned to bomb the New York subway. Zazi and his two coconspirators were homegrown American terrorists who became radicalized living in New York – precisely the kind of people NYPD Intel’s programs were designed to find and stop. The programs failed utterly; NYPD Intel had no information on Zazi when he was first discovered by the FBI. Zazi was caught by the FBI and ordinary NYPD officers, doing regular investigative police work in line with the U.S. Constitution. NYPD Intel, with all its files on mosques and halal butcher shops, contributed nothing helpful about the three bona fide terrorists living in New York City who were communicating with al-Qaeda leadership and plotting what would have been the most devastating terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11.

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the Free Exercise of religion. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from denying Americans the Equal Protection of the laws. Taken together, these protections amount to a clear prohibition on singling out one group for extra scrutiny by a police department based on nothing more than religion or ethnicity. DOJ’s Office of Civil Rights is designed to investigate and stop this sort of unlawful conduct by state officers, and we hope they’ll do their job better than NYPD has.

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