For the past year or so, the NYPD has been forced to very publicly defend a program it once denied existed at all: the surveillance of Muslims, which has allegedly targeted student groups, mosques, religious leaders, and ordinary people. The city and the NYPD are being sued in three separate lawsuits for that surveillance; the most recent suit, Raza v. City of New York , was filed in June by the ACLU; the lead plaintiff, Hamid Hassan Raza, is the imam at Masjid Al-Ansar, a Brooklyn mosque that the ACLU says the NYPD has been spying on since at least 2008.
The city and the NYPD don’t deny they were investigating Raza and the other plaintiffs: Asad “Ace” Dandia, a Muslim student leader; Masjid-At-Taqwa, another mosque; a charity called Muslims Giving Back; and Mohammad Elshinawy, who gives classes and lectures about Islam. But they say their actions were the result of legitimate concerns about potential criminal behavior and terrorism, not anti-Muslim bias.
But the city and the NYPD also didn’t want to comply with the ACLU’s discovery request, which would force them to turn over lots and lots of records about not just the surveillance of the plaintiffs, but about the police department’s broader policies regarding spying on Muslims, or indeed anyone, based on their religious or political beliefs.
After an in-court tussle that’s lasted two months, in a potentially very big development, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen has ordered the city and the NYPD to turn over some of those records.
As the HuffPost was first to report, Judge Chen issued the order Friday. It directs the NYPD to turn over any records relating to the investigation of the plaintiffs themselves, as well as information about two related “terrorism enterprise” investigations. They’ll also have to hand over organizational charts showing how the department’s Intelligence Division is structured. In addition, they’ll be able to get any reports or presentations from the NYPD on how they use Islam, “non-Islamic religions,” or “ancestries of interest” as a basis to investigate or conduct surveillance on a group or an individual, as long as they can prove it’s relevant to their case.
The city and the NYPD have argued, not surprisingly, that releasing this kind of information is both unnecessary and could damage other ongoing investigations. In a letter to the court back in September, a lawyer for the city, Peter G. Farrell, wrote that any surveillance of the plaintiffs was “undertaken in furtherance of the legitimate government interest of investigating and deterring potential unlawful activity, not any kind of unlawful religious profiling.”
In the case of Masjid-At-Taqwa, for example, the city alleges that the mosque had a “lengthy history of criminal activity,” as Farrell put it, “some of it terroristic in nature,” including illegal weapons trafficking, running a “gun club,” and fundraising for terror groups. In the case of Raza’s mosque, Masjid Al Ansar, the city says that “individuals
convicted on terrorism charges have attended lectures by leaders” of the mosque.
In an affidavit in October, Farrell told the judge all the requested information “is extremely sensitive and confidential and certainly is subject to privilege.”
But the judge didn’t agree, although she did deny one of the ACLU’s bigger requests, which asked for documents from 2004 through the present which concerned, as the order puts it:
Investigations of: a. Muslim individuals and organizations; b. Non-Muslim individuals’ religious speech, beliefs, practices, or activities; c. Non-Muslim religious organizations’ religious speech, beliefs, practices, or activities.
The judge called that request “impossibly burdensome,” and pointed out that the NYPD has said it can’t even produce that kind of information, since it doesn’t keep records of investigations according to the subject’s religion.
Speaking of which: As part of the order, the NYPD will also be required to reveal whether it keeps a database of statistics on the investigations of “Muslim individuals; Muslim organizations; non-Muslim individuals either investigated on the basis of religious affiliation, speech, belief or activities” and non-Muslim religious organizations.
In all, even with the requests that were denied, this could add up to the most comprehensive look we’ve ever gotten at how and why the NYPD watches Muslim communities. They’ve got two months to release everything that’s been requested.
The full order is on the following page.
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.