Report: NYPD Spy Program Traumatized Muslim Communities

A new report documents the human impact of the NYPD's sprawling Muslim surveillance program. Though there's no evidence that the spying stopped acts of terrorism, the report found that it has stoked fear and mistrust in schools, neighborhoods--and mosques.

By Seth Freed Wessler Mar 12, 2013

A year and a half after the Associated Press exposed the New York Police Department’s sprawling surveillance program targeting Muslims, three civil liberties groups have detailed the corrosive impact the program had on the students, families and worshippers who were watched. The report, "Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims," documents a pervasive sense of anxiety and self-censorship in New York area Muslim communities.

The 57 students, business owners, educators and community leaders quoted in the report also expressed a fear of police and city officials that permeated nearly every aspect of their daily lives. "We’ve been talking about [NYPD spying] as a civil rights issue and as a constitutional issue without understanding that this is [also] about human beings, their religious institutions, and about students chilled on their campuses," Linda Sarsour, the coordinator of the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, told yesterday after a press conference at One Police Plaza. Sarsour’s group collaborated with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and a City University of New York project called Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR) to produce the report, which they sought to deliver to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly after the press rollout.

Police officials have denied the human impact of the surveillance, claiming that because it was conducted in secret, it didn’t affect people’s day-to-day activities. But many of the Muslims quoted in the report–often on condition of anonymity–note that even before the Associated Press revealed the scale of the surveillance program, community members knew they were being watched. The AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation simply confirmed their worst fears: that there were undercover agents and a web of closed-circuit cameras capturing their every move, and that some of their fellow mosque-goers and classmates were actually informants.

The AP series uncovered an expansive system that police used to map and track the activities and whereabouts of Muslims from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, all in the name of stopping homegrown terrorism. The cops appeared to stop at nothing to build their map: One leaked document from the NYPD Intelligence Division and its so-called Demographics Unit even cited a small African American Muslim preschool in Newark, NJ.

Soheed Amin, who recently graduated from Brooklyn College where he was president of the Muslim Student Association, said after yesterday’s press conference that at least one police informant had joined his student group and another infiltrated his mosque. Now the 22-year-old expects informants to be everywhere, all the time. "From my own experience, it ruins your life to be suspicious of everyone around you."

In the report, some interviewees said they’d stopped having certain conversations for fear of being spied on. The owner of a cafe mapped by the Demographics Unit said, "I don’t allow Al-Jazeera on in our hookah bar, particularly when things flare up in the Middle East. We can’t control what people start saying in response to the news, and we never know who else is in the bar listening." Interview subjects also said the spying interfered with their ability to worship. Out of fear, some parents told their children not to wear Muslim garb in public. Others said they’ve stopped going to their mosque or quickly leave after services because they don’t trust the person praying beside them. "Attendance at a mosque," the report notes, "has become tantamount to placing oneself on law enforcement’s radar."

Jawad Rasul, a 25-year-old Brooklyn College student who I interviewed shortly after the AP story broke, found his name listed in NYPD documents that the AP uncovered. From those records, Rasul discovered that an undercover police officer had accompanied him and 17 others on a rafting trip sponsored by the Muslim Student Association. It was not the first time he’d been targeted. Several years earlier, Rasul says another officer befriended him and then attempted to push him into participating in a terrorist plot. Police officials have said they enlist informants to identify and neutralize potential terrorists, but the tactics have come under increasing scrutiny from advocates who say the program amounts to little more than entrapment.

Ahmed Ferhani, whose trial I covered for last December, will be sentenced to a decade in prison on Friday for his part in a plot to attack a synagogue. But like a handful of other high profile cases in New York City, the facts of the Ferhani case indicate that the plot didn’t precede his contact with the informant and wouldn’t have materialized if he’d been left alone. Ferhani’s defense team and family say police targeted him because of his long history of mental illness. The informant’s practices were so questionable that the FBI refused to take part in the investigation.

Although police have used cases like Ferhani’s to justify their anti-terrorism infrastructure, a commanding officer of the NYPD Intelligence Division admitted during a recent deposition that in the six years he ran the program, it failed to detect any criminal activity. "I never made a lead from the rhetoric that came from a Demographics report, and I’m here since 2006," Assistant Chief Thomas Galati said. The practices have not gone unchecked. The three civil rights groups behind "Mapping Muslims" have united with other organizations including Communities United for Police Reform in a call for police accountability and a rollback of the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk program.

Legal challenges are also underway. A group of attorneys have challenged the NYPD’s tactics under the so-called Handschu rules, a consent decree from the 1980s that bars the police from keeping records they’ve gleaned from surveilling legal activities. Meanwhile, several civil rights and civil liberties groups including Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights have filed a suit on behalf of several New Jersey residents alleging that police spying violated their constitutional rights. That suit is pending. Some New York City Council Members are considering a host of bills that if passed would expand oversight of the police department, including one to appoint an independent inspector general. "Constantly [my constituents] come to me with concerns about spying in our communities," Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm, who supports the oversight legislation, said at yesterday’s press conference. "All Americans should be concerned."

**This post has been updated since publication*