New York City to start monitoring 'discriminatory' surveillance by police

A settlement on two lawsuits requires the city to appoint a monitor, who will keep an eye on NYPD terrorism investigations for the next five years.

Aristide Economopoulos,/The Star Ledger/AP
Members of the NYPD Strategic Response Group stand outside St. Patrick's Cathedral prior to the arrival of Pope Francis, Sept. 24, in New York.

As a result of a settlement of two lawsuits against the New York Police Department for what plaintiffs call “discriminatory” surveillance of Muslims, the city has agreed to appoint an independent watchdog to monitor the department’s terrorist investigations.

A civilian lawyer will serve for five years inside the police department to review counterterrorism files and report wrongdoing to the police commissioner, mayor or a federal judge, according to a report by The New York Times.

The police department has been widely criticized for using intrusive and discriminatory investigation practices that included sending plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods in and around New York City, infiltrating Muslim student groups and building files on people.

The settlement is a win not only for the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, but it is also a relief for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has promised to reform the police department and has called NYPD’s  intrusive investigations of the Muslim community in the New York area “deeply troubling.”

“These safeguards will be a strong check against the discriminatory surveillance of Muslim communities that we challenged in our lawsuit,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, who represents plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, to the Times. “We hope the settlement shows that effective policing isn’t at odds with constitutional policing.”

Civil rights lawyers say that police investigative tactics over the last decade violated the Constitution. These included planting undercover officers as spies living with Muslim names in Muslim communities, and were revealed in a 2011 Associated Press investigation.

The New York City police department does not admit any wrongdoing, reports the Times, and will not be barred from using existing investigative tactics. The department had a investigations review panel that was eliminated after the Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks to give the department greater leeway in counterterrorism work.

Police say they welcome increased transparency if that will improve their image in the community.

“We have nothing to hide,” said Lawrence Byrne, the police department’s deputy commissioner of legal matters to the Times. “And if this adds transparency and a level of public trust that we’re continuing to keep the city safe, but in a lawful way, we welcome and embrace that.”

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