The New York Police Department is taking a tough stance in a heated legal battle over its continuing use of Muslim informants in terror threat investigations.
Muslim groups filed a civil rights lawsuit last year that asked a federal judge to declare the surveillance unconstitutional and halt it.
City lawyers struck back by suggesting the plaintiffs brought the attention on themselves with “rhetoric or their known, suspected or rumored associations with people or organizations of ill repute.” The city then demanded any communications by the plaintiffs — which include two Brooklyn mosques, an imam, a Muslim charity — that mention terrorism, jihad or the war in Afghanistan as well as financial records from the mosques and charity, including names of donors.
The plaintiffs say the city is unjustly seeking information that’s private. Disclosure of records from the mosque and the charity “would further alienate and chill congregants, members, donors and donees … and thereby infringe on plaintiffs’ right to free exercise, free speech and associational privacy,” their lawyers wrote in court papers in late March.
The court fight appears to indicate a backing off of pledges by Mayor Bill de Blasio and police officials to be more sensitive than the previous administration to concerns about spying on Muslims.
Last month, the NYPD announced it had disbanded the Demographics Unit, a team of detectives assigned to create databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Civil rights advocates, however, noted that the department wasn’t committing to abandoning a practice adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — the practice of using Muslim informants to try to detect and thwart terror threats.
The New York Times, citing internal NYPD documents, reported this week that the police department’s Intelligence Division is continuing to debrief Muslims arrested for petty offenses to see if some could be persuaded to become informants. Asked about the program on Monday, De Blasio said he “wanted to know more about it” but declined further comment.
Police officials say the debriefings are not coercive conversations and have proven effective in identifying informants to help protect the city. City lawyers also say the nation’s largest police department puts people under surveillance for legitimate investigative reasons, not because of their ethnicity or religion.
But Muslim advocates say the program sends the wrong message.
“Those who had looked to Mayor de Blasio for real meaningful changes in policing and relationships with Muslims are disappointed,” Hina Shamsi, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer on the case, said Monday.