A Settlement Unsettles Some

To settle two federal lawsuits brought by Muslim advocates who claimed that the New York Police Department has violated Muslims’ constitutional rights, New York City has agreed to more stringent regulations for police anti-terror operations.

The suits were among a number of legal actions that followed reports by The Associated Press revealing how city police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques and otherwise spied on Muslims as part of a broad effort to prevent terrorist attacks since the ones of September 11, 2001.

Under the settlement, which was reached after months of negotiations, the city will pay approximately two million dollars to the plaintiffs, although only to cover legal fees, not as compensatory damages; the NYPD did not admit any wrongdoing. And another layer of review will be added to a committee that monitors the department’s intelligence gathering.

The NYPD will also formalize surveillance rules that it says are already in place — like not considering “race, religion or ethnicity” to be motivating factors in investigations. Other provisions require the department to use the least intrusive investigative techniques possible, and to consider “the potential effect on the political or religious activity of individuals, groups or organizations and the potential effect on persons who, although not a target of the investigation, are affected by or subject to the technique.”

Mayor de Blasio, moreover, will appoint a lawyer who has never worked for the NYPD to a five-year term to monitor the committee that oversees intelligence investigations. The monitor will sit in on monthly meetings, review materials and bring any concerns about police anti-terrorism tactics to either City Hall or a federal judge.

Finally, the settlement requires the NYPD to remove a 92-page report, titled “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” produced in 2007, from its website. The report was seen by some as identifying Muslim dress and observances themselves as evidence of radicalization. Although the report cited, and detailed, cases where sudden religiosity turned out to be a sign of future terrorist activity, the report’s critics asserted that the vast majority of Muslims, including the vast majority of recent converts to Islam, are not violence-prone.

Critics of the settlement are concerned that putting power into the hands of an individual monitor could impede investigations where lives may be imminently endangered; and that the radicalization report was not unreasonable or prejudiced for having identified newfound fervor for Islam as a risk factor for terrorist recruitment.

The settlement and the criticism call attention to the need for a delicate balance when it comes to the effort to undermine domestic terrorism. To be sure, an American’s religion should not be inherent grounds for suspicion of criminal activity, whether that religion is Islam, Christianity or any other faith.

And yet, when there is a pattern of threats to society where perpetrators claim to be acting in the name of a particular religion, it is not baldly unreasonable to have some degree of heightened suspicion when other members of that faith seem to be following those perpetrators’ paths, especially if their fervor seems aimed not at achieving personal growth or doing good deeds but at committing acts of violence and spreading the faith by force.

Any religious congregation with members who have ties to terrorist groups, of whatever faith system, or who are known to have expressed radical, violent views or intent to do harm to others should be fair game for surveillance.

The recent settlement might seem to some to undermine that assertion. But, the NYPD claims that the truth is otherwise, that its intelligence activities will be unchanged by the agreement. Deputy Commissioner John Miller, who supervises intelligence and counterterrorism for the department, characterized the agreement as a win for all sides in the dispute.

He points out that the NYPD has in effect long employed a number of the controls that are spelled out in the settlement, that the agreement only, in effect, codifies what has always been the policy of New York’s police force.

“There is no action that we can’t take today that we could have taken yesterday,” he said of the settlement.

We hope that is indeed the case, and that New Yorkers can continue to enjoy not only freedom to worship as they choose but freedom from the specter of evil people with evil plans.