Posted by on June 27, 2013 in Blog

Since the Associated Press exposed the NYPD’s illegal surveillance against Arab Americans and American Muslims in 2011, members of those communities and outside observers have called for increased oversight of the Department. The federal government, thus far, has disappointed. The Justice Department has responded by opening a slow-moving investigation into the NYPD’s practices, and one of President Obama’s closest counterterrorism advisors publicly backed the program. City officials have been supportive of profiling as well. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have been outspoken advocates of the NYPD’s surveillance programs.

In light of these troubling responses, it is encouraging to see the New York City City Council act yesterday to protect the rights of Muslim and Arab New Yorkers. The Council passed two measures designed to curb some of the NYPD’s worst abuses: the first would create an Inspector General to oversee the NYPD, and the second would prohibit the Department from using racial, ethnic or religious criteria for arrests or surveillance.

The first measure, Bill 1079, will create an inspector general position to oversee the NYPD, reporting to the public on the Department’s methods. This is an important measure that will allow the public some visibility to the organization that polices their streets. The NYPD has an impressive record of reducing crime, and especially murder, over the last two decades, but programs like stop-and-frisk and surveillance of Muslims and Arab Americans illustrate that the Department should be overseen by an outsider. Commissioner Kelly has protested that the measure would waste precious police resources, but nearly every federal agency, from the CIA to the State Department, operates with an inspector general without any loss in efficiency. The NYPD, and New Yorkers generally, would benefit from an outsider’s perspective.

The second measure, also passed by the Council yesterday, is Bill 1080, prohibiting the use of racial, ethnic and religious profiling by the NYPD. A supporter of the bill, Councilman Bill Lander said the measure’s goal would be to “...ensur[e] that surveillance is based on leads, not on religion or ethnicity.” As Lander’s comments make clear, the new law would prohibit the type of surveillance the NYPD has conducted against Muslims and Arab Americans purely because of their religion and ethnic background. It would also help to reign in stop-and-frisk, a controversial program that ensnares blacks and Latinos at vastly higher rates than other racial groups.

Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly are on record as opposing both bills, claiming that they would inhibit the NYPD’s ability to fight crime. Such objections are spurious and irresponsible; the NYPD has more than enough resources to keep New Yorkers safe without resorting to racial profiling. Furthermore, by fostering trust between the police and the communities they protect, these measures may actually help make the NYPD more effective. Both bills were shepherded through the Council by mayoral hopeful and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a sign of a brighter future for relations between the NYPD, Muslim and Arab American New Yorkers. The City Council should be applauded for stepping up to preserve the rights of all New Yorkers and targeted communities in other states as well.

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