Surveillance Should Be Top Priority for New NYPD Inspector General

The new NYPD Inspector General started Tuesday. His first priority should be investigating the Department's dragnet surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers.

May 27, 2014
Surveillance Should Be Top Priority for New NYPD Inspector General

Crossposted from The Huffington Post

Philip K. Eure begins work today as the first-ever Inspector General (IG) for the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and there is a lot on his to-do list — including issues related to stop-and-frisk, police in schools, and police interactions with the homeless. But his first priority should be an investigation into the NYPD’s dragnet surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers.

Since 9/11, the NYPD has engaged in widespread and systematic surveillance of Muslim communities in New York City and beyond. Its operations have been, vast, invasive, and damaging to both civil liberties and public safety, according to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice. The NYPD’s surveillance has sown significant distrust of law enforcement in the policed communities and has been largely ineffective in gathering useful intelligence information. So much so, in fact, that civil rights groups (including the Brennan Center) urged the New York city council to create an independent IG’s office to investigate the Department’s policies and practices and to make recommendations for reform.

Now that Eure has the reins, he should start by initiating a full review of the NYPD’s intelligence-gathering and surveillance policies and procedures. Of course, such an investigation will be a massive undertaking. One way for the IG’s office to be thorough and efficient is to break up the task into smaller chunks. For example, Eure should consider directing his attention to some of the most pressing issues, including:

  • The widespread recruitment and use of informants within New York City’s Muslim communities, which has been divisive and unnecessary to meet legitimate law enforcement concerns.
  • The use of “Terrorism Enterprise Investigations” targeting mosques and social service organizations. Such investigations are extremely broad and cause a great deal of distrust in Muslim communities. 
  • The collection, retention, and dissemination of intelligence records without reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity. The IG should conduct an audit of the NYPD’s intelligence files to assess the standards by which data are collected and retained, as well as who has access to the information and when.
  • The NYPD’s extra-jurisdictional activities, including the surveillance of Muslim Student Associations at colleges and universities in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. The IG should determine the extent of the NYPD’s extra-jurisdictional activities and assess whether they had legal authorization and complied with all applicable laws and policies.

In order to be effective in his investigations, the IG’s office will also need to secure adequate resources and staff in the near future. According to testimony from Mark Peters, the new Commissioner of the Department of Investigation, “the most important thing [for the IG’s independence] is [a] separate staff [and] separate space.” Strong oversight of the NYPD will require an independent space to alleviate potential conflicts of interest in sharing office space with members of the NYPD who are assisting in the other work of the Department of Investigations. It will also require a hardworking and talented staff (and is currently accepting applications).

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently released preliminary Fiscal Year 2015 budget includes 50 staff members and $5 million for the IG’s office. As Commissioner Peters has said, the NYPD IG will need to hire several executives to run the office, lawyers to evaluate the day-to-day of the investigations, staff for a public complaints bureau, several data analysts, and “a whole series of investigators” to complete the investigations. By hiring individuals with such diverse investigative skills, the IG will be able to begin immediately assessing the appropriateness and effectiveness of the NYPD’s myriad policies, whether those policies are related to surveillance, stop-and-frisk, or any of a host of other NYPD policing programs.

During his first few months, the NYPD IG will face a number of challenges. Once staffed, the success of the office will likely depend on how it can balance its many obligations with the need to make progress on the urgent and persistent problems that led to its creation.

Hopefully, Eure — who has extensive experience working with police agencies to protect civil liberties as head of the Office of Police Complaints in Washington, D.C — will have the resources he needs to help bring the unlawful surveillance of New York’s Muslim community to an end.

This post is co-authored by Megan Graham, a summer law intern in the Brennan Center's Liberty & National Security Program.

(Photo: Flickr/Andrew Dallos)