The New York City Police Department has agreed to stop surveilling people in New Jersey in investigations based solely on their race, religion, or ethnicity as part of a legal settlement between the city and Muslim American plaintiffs.
This is the third and latest settlement that came about as a result of the reporting by the Associated Press. The others prevented the NYPD from spying based on religion in New York.
The Muslim plaintiffs alleged in a 2012 lawsuit that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks NYPD officers violated their civil rights by surveilling them solely on the basis of their religion.
“People were being targeted by the NYPD for going about their everyday lives, their houses of worship, going to business that happened to be Muslim owned. Simply because they were Muslim they were being targeted,” said Farhana Khera, president and executive director of Muslim Advocates, an advocacy group representing the plaintiffs.
The terms of the settlement also state that the plaintiffs in the case will be allowed to provide input on a forthcoming NYPD policy guide that will cover proper conduct and guidelines for its investigations. The settlement also requires that the policy guide be publicly available.
According to the settlement, the city will also pay damages to the plaintiffs, which include businesses, mosques, Muslim student groups, and individuals that were surveilled.
Khera said the settlement will help law enforcement be more transparent about their policies while sending a message that blanket surveillance of religious or ethnic groups are not only unlawful, but ineffective.
“We definitely see this as an important and, frankly, a landmark settlement for the Muslim community and civil rights for our country,” said Khera.
The civil rights lawsuit came after a Pulitzer Prize–winning series by the AP detailed how the NYPD's Intelligence Division's Demographic Unit worked with the CIA to surveil Muslim communities in the New York area, including in neighboring New Jersey.
Leaked documents revealed that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the NYPD engaged in large-scale surveillance of Muslim-owned businesses, Muslim student groups, individuals, and mosques.
The reports also subsequently revealed that the program never led to actionable leads or terrorism cases, despite its decade-long existence and questionable methods.
The unit also created a list of 28 “ancestries of interest” that included nearly every Muslim-majority country in addition to the group "American Black Muslim."
The records created by the unit were so extensive that, for example, files on businesses owned by third-generation Muslim Americans were kept solely based on their religion or perceived religion.
In 2014 , US District Judge William Martini threw out the lawsuit after ruling that the program did not violate the US Constitution despite allegations that the nation’s largest police force spied on people, places, and businesses based solely on their religion.
“While this surveillance program may have had adverse effects upon the Muslim community after the Associated Press published its articles, the motive for the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law-abiding Muslims,” Martini wrote at the time.
But a year later, in 2015, a three-judge panel on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reinstated the lawsuit and sent the case back to the courts.
“We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the civil rights movement and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind,” wrote Thomas L. Ambro, a judge on the panel.
Omar Farah, the lead attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights organization that also worked on the case, said the settlement sends a resounding message to law enforcement that "in times of uncertainty, the constitution requires certain behavior of law enforcement and prohibits other behavior."
“That’s quite powerful and will have lasting effects on how the NYPD polices in the future," he said.
As a result of the reporting by the AP, two other cases related to the alleged spying also reached a settlement.
“There's never been any finding or admission of liability either that the NYPD did anything wrong, and that will not change as a result of the announcement [of the settlement],” NYPD Deputy Commissioner Lawrence Byrne said of Thursday's settlement.