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125 Groups ask DOJ to Probe Un-American NYPD Surveillance

Noa Yachot,
Former Senior Editor,
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October 24, 2013

New York’s Muslims have a very good reason to be suspicious — and even fearful — of their city’s police department. For over a decade, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division has targeted Muslims for discriminatory surveillance based on nothing but their faith, spying on them in their places of worship, businesses, and even homes.

The NYPD’s biased spying program constitutes a clear violation of the civil rights of innocent Muslims, who are viewed as suspect and stigmatized by the very authorities charged with protecting them – in a program that has reportedly not generated even one terrorism lead. For that reason, the ACLU has joined with more than 120 other groups to ask the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the NYPD’s suspicionless Muslim surveillance program. In a letter sent today, the coalition – comprised of a diverse group of religious, racial justice, civil rights, and community-based organizations – describes some of the program’s devastating effects:

Unsurprisingly, the NYPD’s surveillance program has had far-reaching, deeply negative effects on Muslims’ constitutional rights by chilling speech and religious practice and harming religious goals and missions. It has frayed the social fabric of Muslim communities by breeding anxiety, distrust, and fear. The NYPD’s biased policing practices hurt not only Muslims, but all communities who rightfully expect that law enforcement will serve and protect America’s diverse population equally, without discrimination.

NYPD records, described in Pulitzer-Prize winning reporting by the Associated Press, have extensively confirmed and documented the surveillance program, in which police officers and informants use a variety of invasive methods and technologies to map and monitor mosques, restaurants, bookstores, and places frequented by Muslims in New York. As Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said today, “The NYPD’s surveillance program has stigmatized Muslims as suspect and had deeply negative effects on their free speech, association, and religious practice.”

The spying program strikes at the heart of religious freedom, which is why groups representing diverse faith traditions and beliefs have signed the letter – including Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim organizations. In the words of Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance and pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, La.:

In America, law enforcement should never turn anyone’s First Amendment-protected religious beliefs into cause for suspicion, and yet evidence shows that’s exactly what the New York Police Department is doing to Muslim New Yorkers. The fact that people of faith might have to fear going to their houses of worship or freely practicing their religion is about as un-American as un-American gets.

The ACLU, the NYCLU, and the CLEAR project sued the NYPD over its Muslim surveillance program earlier this year. (You can read more about our lawsuit here, and our clients here.) But the Justice Department is also authorized to act. Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for policy and advocacy, said today:

Just as the Civil Rights Division has investigated and sanctioned police departments for biased profiling based on race and ethnicity, it should investigate the NYPD for profiling based on religion.

The wide range of groups and organizations who have signed the letter demonstrates how blatantly offensive the NYPD program is to America’s diverse communities. We hope that the government recognizes these clear harms done to the constitutional rights of an entire religious group across the city of New York and beyond.

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