The New York Police Department has agreed to not engage in surveillance on the basis of religion or ethnicity as part of a settlement of a lawsuit that challenged its monitoring of Muslims at mosques, schools, and businesses in New Jersey in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The agreement, announced Thursday, also calls for the police department to permit the plaintiffs of the lawsuit, including Muslim residents, business owners, student groups and clergy, to provide input for a new policy guide which will govern the activities of the department’s intelligence bureau.
The plaintiffs also will contribute ideas to a section of the police training manual relating to “how not to discriminate when policing,’’ said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, one of the organizations that represented the 10 plaintiffs.
Payments to defendants varied. The largest is $22,500 to the Council of Imams in New Jersey. Other plaintiffs received $1,250 and others $5,000. One company will receive $10,000 and another $15,000.
“Today’s settlement marks a monumental victory of American Muslim communities far and wide who have demanded fair and equal treatment by law enforcement,’’ Khera said. “The message to police departments from coast to coast is loud and clear: You cannot treat someone as a suspect based on their faith.”
The settlement will be submitted to the court on Thursday for approval.
In a statement on its website, the City of New York and the NYPD say that in the settlement they did not admit to any violation of law or misconduct.
"The City, the NYPD and the plaintiffs worked long and hard, in good faith, to achieve a settlement that provides for more transparency around the policies and practices of the Intelligence Bureau while not hampering our ability to conduct authorized investigations under the Handschu Guidelines," said John J. Miller, deputy commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism. "Forging partnerships and maintaining the confidence of all communities is an essential element in fighting crime and terrorism."
The Handschu guidelines regulate the police department's investigations of political activity.
Omar Farah, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the settlement exemplified the power of coordinated legal action and community mobilization while also serving as a warning to law enforcement agencies everywhere to "abandon identity-based policing in all its forms."
"Attempting to predict criminality on the basis of race or religion is repugnant and it never works — except to humiliate and criminalize targeted communities,'' he said in a statement.
Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights, both of which are non-profit organizations, filed the suit in 2012 in federal court in Newark on behalf of individuals and organizations, including businesses, business owners, students and a decorated Iraq war veteran, all of whom alleged they had been harmed by the surveillance. It was the first case to challenge the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program. Two more followed.
In the suit, the plaintiffs claimed that, since January 2002, the NYPD had monitored the lives of Muslims in New York City and surrounding states, particularly New Jersey. They alleged that they were monitored solely because they were Muslim or believed to be Muslim, and that the surveillance was not based on evidence of wrongdoing.
They alleged that city detectives conducted secret surveillance on Muslim stores, schools, restaurants, at Rutgers University and at more than 20 mosques — including several in Paterson and Newark — and as well as other places in New Jersey. Police, the plaintiffs claimed, listened in on sermons and conversations, recorded worshipers’ license plates, mapped and photographed locations that are owned or frequented by Muslims, and mounted surveillance cameras on light poles, aimed at mosques.
They also claimed that the NYPD sent undercover officers into mosques, student organizations, businesses, and neighborhoods that it believed to be “heavily Muslim.”
The surveillance program was first reported in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories by The Associated Press.
The plaintiffs claimed in the lawsuit that they lost business when customers learned of the surveillance, that their professional image suffered, and that the surveillance created an atmosphere of fear in which people were afraid to worship or speak out about politics and religion.
Sgt. Syed Farhaj Hassan of Helmetta, in Middlesex County, an Army reservist and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, claimed in the suit that he decreased his mosque attendance significantly because he believed that being affiliated with mosques that were under surveillance could jeopardize his ability to hold a security clearance and tarnish his reputation among fellow soldiers.
Moiz Mohammad, a member of the Muslim Students Association at Rutgers, claimed in the suit that he had avoided discussing his faith openly at the organization’s gatherings for fear of being watched or documented.
“We are proud that we stood up to the most powerful police force in the country and against the suspicion and ignorance that guided their discriminatory practices,’’ Hassan said. “We believe the legal rulings and settlements, in this case, will endure as part of a broader effort to hold this country to account for its stated commitment and its obligation to uphold religious liberty and equality.”
Long road to a settlement
Settlement talks started soon after Oct. 13, 2015, when a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled the lawsuit could move forward, Khera said. In its 60-page decision, the three-judge panel likened the surveillance program to the government’s treatment of “Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II.”
“It was a historic ruling, because, for the first time, we had in this post-9/11 climate, we had a federal appeals court saying to a law enforcement agency that you cannot single out a group of Americans based on their faith, and treat simply their faith as the basis for suspicion,’’ Khera said. “That was a wonderful message to be sent, not to just the NYPD, but all law enforcement agencies.”
That ruling followed a February 2014 dismissal of the suit by a federal judge who ruled that the likely motive of the surveillance was to find terrorists hiding among law-abiding Muslims and that any harm would have been caused not by the police but rather by The Associated Press for exposing the surveillance.
New York City had already reached settlements on two similar lawsuits that claimed the surveillance was discriminatory and violated Muslims' rights.
“With this settlement, that kind of concludes the three cases, and we also see it as the beginning of a kind of a new chapter, so to speak, in the NYPD’s relationship with our communities," Khera said.
He added that it "as advocates is our intent to continue to work closely with Muslim communities in ensuring that the NYPD is actually doing what they say they are going to be doing, and ensure compliance."
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