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NYPD Targeting of New York Muslims Continues

The NYPD is still infiltrating mosques and other community spaces, coercing informants to spy on their own communities, and adhering to a misguided theory of ‘conveyor-belt radicalization’ to identify potential terrorists.

  • Meghan Koushik
August 20, 2014

In a speech to Muslim community lead­ers last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio lauded the disband­ment of the NYPD’s infam­ous Demo­graph­ics Unit as a sign of progress in his admin­is­tra­tion’s efforts to increase cooper­a­tion between Muslim communit­ies and law enforce­ment, call­ing reli­gious profil­ing ‘unfair’ and ‘coun­ter­pro­duct­ive.’  At face value, these remarks may herald progress. But a closer exam­in­a­tion suggests a more troub­ling pattern. NYPD officers are still infilt­rat­ing mosques and other community spaces, coer­cing inform­ants to spy on their own communit­ies, and adher­ing to a misguided theory of ‘con­veyor-belt radic­al­iz­a­tion’ to identify poten­tial terror­ists. Despite De Blasio’s posit­ive rhet­oric on build­ing part­ner­ships and community outreach and Commis­sioner Brat­ton’s pledge to improve rela­tions between law enforce­ment and minor­ity communit­ies, the pair’s first year on the job has not led to any signi­fic­ant over­hauls in NYPD oper­a­tional policy.

On a basic level, the NYPD still adheres to its intern­ally developed 2007 report, “Radic­al­iz­a­tion in the West,” which theor­izes that deep­en­ing Islamic reli­gious convic­tions are inher­ently correl­ated with a rising propensity to viol­ence. Its logic considers any activ­it­ies asso­ci­ated with Islamic prac­tices — from grow­ing a beard to congreg­at­ing at hookah bars — to be suspi­cious. Essen­tially, anyone who parti­cip­ates in Muslim community activ­it­ies can be a suspect. Despite being empir­ic­ally disproven, the NYPD still refuses to disavow the report, and its rhet­oric is used as justi­fic­a­tion for several ongo­ing oper­a­tions target­ing the Muslim community.   

The NYPD’s grow­ing reli­ance on inform­ants has contin­ued to perpetu­ate the atmo­sphere of suspi­cion and distrust within the Muslim community. In May, a New York Times article revealed that the NYPD’s ‘City­wide Debrief­ing Team’ combed through lists of arrest records for people with plaus­ibly Arab or South Asian ethnic back­grounds brought in on minor viol­a­tions with the specific purpose of turn­ing them into inform­ants. They were reportedly told to bait fellow Muslims through conver­sa­tion and provide the NYPD with docu­ment­a­tion of these encoun­ters. Over a thou­sand New York­ers were ‘inter­viewed’ through the program in 2013 alone. De Blasio said he would ‘reserve judg­ment’ on the contro­ver­sial program, reaf­firm­ing his admin­is­tra­tion’s commit­ment to estab­lish­ing an ‘appro­pri­ate balance between secur­ity and civil liber­ties’.

The NYPD’s use of inform­ants faced sharp criti­cism in an extens­ive report from Human Rights Watch, which docu­mented a pattern of the police target­ing vulner­able people, includ­ing those with phys­ical and mental limit­a­tions in coun­terter­ror­ism prosec­u­tions. The report docu­mented several cases wherein law enforce­ment officers, through inform­ants, essen­tially created a plot, supplied the resources to imple­ment it, and coerced vulner­able Muslim-Amer­ican targets into compli­city. A recent HBO docu­ment­ary “The Newburgh Sting” docu­ments a case where an FBI inform­ant provided four New York men with weapons and a prom­ised $250,000 reward to plan attacks on a US milit­ary base and local synagogues. All four men were convicted, and the judge ruling in the case later commen­ted that the govern­ment had created a terror­ist out of a man “whose buffoon­ery was posit­ively Shakespearean in scope.”

Addi­tion­ally, the NYPD still desig­nates entire mosques ‘ter­ror­ist enter­prises’, a title that essen­tially gives police full reign to invest­ig­ate anyone with a tenu­ous connec­tion to the mosque, includ­ing imams and congreg­ants. Several terror­ist enter­prise invest­ig­a­tions have gone on for over a decade, despite the fact that the NYPD has never actu­ally charged a mosque with any sort of crim­inal activ­ity. As a candid­ate, de Blasio tweeted in response to the incid­ent “deeply troubled NYPD has labelled entire mosques & Muslim orgs terror groups with seem­ingly no leads. Secur­ity AND liberty make us strong.”

In short, there is a wide gap between de Blasio’s spoken inten­tions and the policy decisions of Brat­ton’s police depart­ment. New York’s Muslim community needs more than plat­it­udes. If de Blasio’s admin­is­tra­tion truly wants to part­ner in the fight for Muslims’ civil liber­ties, it must focus its atten­tion beyond what it has already accom­plished and move ahead onto the chal­lenges that remain. Recon­sid­er­ing the frame­work for New York law enforce­ment’s oper­at­ing proced­ures would be a signi­fic­ant step ahead in build­ing a product­ive rela­tion­ship between law enforce­ment and Muslim communit­ies. 

(Photo: Flickr)