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.