NYPD Settles Lawsuit Over Muslim Surveillance

New York City officials on Thursday announced a landmark settlement of a sweeping 2013 lawsuit over NYPD surveillance of Muslims that alleged the police intelligence division unconstitutionally deployed informants and infiltrated mosques.

By John Riley and Anthony M. Destefano

New York City officials on Thursday announced a landmark settlement of a sweeping 2013 lawsuit over NYPD surveillance of Muslims that alleged the police intelligence division unconstitutionally deployed informants and infiltrated mosques.

The settlement reiterates NYPD legal duties to not base investigations on religion or ethnicity and installs a civilian representative appointed by the mayor inside the NYPD to monitor investigations of political and religious activities for legal compliance.

The NYPD as part of the deal agrees to follow practices complying with a 1985 federal court decree governing probes of political activities -- basing investigations only on "articulable and factual" information, limiting use of undercovers to situations where no less intrusive means is possible, and ensuring that investigations aren't ended.

The police department also agreed to remove from its website a report titled "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," which critics said had encouraged religious profiling by over-generalizing and exaggerating domestic Muslim radicalization.

The NYPD does not admit to any wrongdoing in its past practices or pay any damages, and police officials said that other than the new civilian representative, the settlement largely codifies practices it is obligated to follow under the 1985 case, known as the "Handschu guidelines."

The 2013 lawsuit alleged that the police had gone overboard in reaction to fears of terrorism, targeting Muslims for investigation based on protected First Amendment activities and surveilling mosques -- labeling some "terrorist enterprises" -- without a sufficient factual basis.

In 2014, the NYPD announced that it was disbanding a so-called "demographic unit" that had used techniques designed to develop intelligence on the Muslim community that had been at the center of the controversy, but it has not been clear what functions may have been shifted to other units.

In addition to a lawsuit in Brooklyn federal court, the New York Civil Liberties Union and other groups asked a federal judge in Manhattan to review activities relating to Muslims under the 1985 Handschu guidelines.

"This settlement is a win for all New Yorkers," NYCLU legal director Arthur Eisenberg said in a statement. "It will curtail practices that wrongly stigmatize individuals simply on the basis of their religion, race or ethnicity. At the same time, the NYPD's investigative practices will be rendered more effective by focusing on criminal behavior."

"We are committed to strengthening the relationship between our administration and communities of faith so that residents of every background feel respected and protected," Mayor Bill de Blasio said. "New York City's Muslim residents are strong partners in the fight against terrorism, and this settlement represents another important step toward building our relationship with the Muslim community."

NYPD intelligence chief John Miller said, "The proposed settlement does not weaken the NYPD's ability to fulfill its steadfast commitment to investigate and prevent terrorist activity in New York City."

Although the New York cases were settled, another lawsuit filed in federal court in New Jersey by Muslims in that state who were targeted by the NYPD intelligence efforts remains alive.

That lawsuit seeks monetary damages on behalf of some plaintiffs. Last year, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia said the suit could go forward, ruling that terror fears did not justify discriminatory scrutiny of Muslims.

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.