Earlier this week, a settlement was reached between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) relating to two legal challenges made against the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities.
The first lawsuit, Handschu v. Special Services Division, which relates to a set of guidelines on NYPD investigations, claimed police surveillance had a “chilling effect” upon the exercise of free speech, assembly, and association by targeting activists for their constitutional activities. In the second case, Raza vs. the City of New York, plaintiffs argued that the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities was discriminatory and created stigma, as well as a chilling effect on Muslim communities and nonprofit organizations.
After the September 11 attacks, the NYPD implemented an expansive surveillance apparatus that sent informants into places like mosques, student groups, cafes, and restaurants, to eavesdrop on conversations and document the everyday activities of Muslims. In some cases, plainclothes officers attempted to bait Muslims into making incendiary political remarks. The NYPD’s surveillance operated on the assumption that Muslim religiosity was an indicator of terror sympathies and, therefore, inherently suspect.
The discriminatory policing devastated New York’s Muslim community without making us safer. The ACLU settlement marks the first time, since 9/11, that any meaningful reforms and safeguards have been imposed to prevent this sort of discriminatory surveillance of American Muslims.
Under the settlements terms, the NYPD will not only cease engaging in discriminatory investigations; it also explicitly recognizes the right of New Yorkers to be free from policing tactics in which race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin is a substantial or motivating factor. The settlement obligates the NYPD to place time limits on its surveillance investigations, and restricts the use of undercover agents and paid informants.
The agreement expands the independence, authority, and responsibilities of a civilian representative who will act as a check against surveillance abuses by the NYPD. It also prohibits the mayor from abolishing the civilian representative position without court approval, expands the civilian representative’s authority to ensure the NYPD’s compliance with the “Handschu Guidelines” on surveillance of political and religious activity, and empowers the civilian representative to report directly to the court, any time he or she believes the guidelines are being violated.
At a time where our civil rights and liberties are under unprecedented assault, this is a win for anyone who values religious freedom and equality. The widespread targeting of Muslims in today’s environment spreads fear, harms communities, and undermines security. While there is work to be done to address religious bigotry and racism in this country, this settlement is an important step forward.