In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, according to AP reporting in 2011, the New York Police Department rolled out a sprawling and secretive human mapping and surveillance program targeting Muslim communities both inside New York and beyond. The NYPD allegedly spied on at least 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 retail stores, two grade schools, and two Muslim Student Associations in New Jersey, and included video surveillance, photographing license plates, community mapping, and infiltration by undercover officers and informants.
And over almost 10 years, the massive spying program failed to produce a single lead.
But it did produce three lawsuits against the NYPD over its spying practices, and the department just settled the last of the three last week, promising to revamp its intelligence gathering processes and compensate victims of the surveillance.
According to the lawsuit, originally filed in 2012, the surveillance program was “founded and operated upon a false and constitutionally impermissible premise: that Muslim religious identity is a legitimate criterion for selection of law enforcement surveillance targets, or that it is a legitimate proxy for criminality.” And the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed when it reviewed the case in 2015: “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.”
Individual plaintiffs claimed they suffered stigma and humiliation after being targeted based on their religion, and businesses and mosques claimed they lost income because of the surveillance. “We are proud that we stood up to the most powerful police force in the country and against the suspicion and ignorance that guided their discriminatory practices,” said lead plaintiff Farhaj Hassan. “We believe the legal rulings and settlement in this case will endure as part of a broader effort to hold this country to account for its stated commitment and its obligation to uphold religious liberty and equality.”
Along with financial compensation for the individual and business victims, under the settlement the NYPD will not engage in suspicionless surveillance on the basis of religion or ethnicity, permit plaintiff input to a first-ever intelligence gathering Policy Guide (and publish the Guide to the public), as well as attend a public meeting with plaintiffs so they can express their concerns about the issues in the lawsuit directly.
“Today’s settlement marks a monumental victory for American Muslim communities far and wide who have demanded fair and equal treatment by law enforcement,” according to Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates. “The message to police departments from coast to coast is loud and clear: you cannot treat someone as a suspect based on their faith.”