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NYPD: Spying on Muslims leads to ... nothing

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 4/16/2013, 4:34 p.m.
Stop and frisk, Occupy protestors branded by NYPD

Was all of the spying for naught?

According to recently released court testimony by the New York Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights attorneys, a member of the New York Police Department said no leads were found after six years of surveillance on local Muslims.

In the deposition, NYPD Assistant Chief Thomas Galati testified that no leads were made from spying on Muslim New Yorkers. "I never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a Demographics [Unit] report, and I'm here since 2006," he said on June 28. "I don't recall other ones prior to my arrival."

NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg said in statement that this testimony is an admittance by the NYPD that it spied on Muslim New Yorkers because of their religion, ethnicity and native language and not because they were suspected of any criminal activity.

"The NYPD has effectively imposed a badge of suspicion on all Muslims and stigmatized whole communities in New York City solely because of their religious affiliations," Eisenberg said.

Galati, the commanding officer of the NYPD Intelligence Division, testified that the NYPD labeled any neighborhood that had a high concentration of Middle Easterners as a "place of concern." Galati's testimony was about the police's Demographics Unit, which was exposed by the Associated Press last year. The NYPD denied its existence.

Regardless, Paul Browne, the deputy commissioner for the NYPD, still told the AmNews that the AP's accusations are false.

"The AP's premise that the Demographics Unit was used for wholesale spying on Muslims, using undercover officers and informants to do so, was false," said Browne. "The small unit, about eight people, surveyed places a terrorist might go to use a foreign language Internet cafe, get a job off the books, find a place to stay, etc.

"Neither confidential informants nor undercover officers were assigned to the Demographics Unit. It did not conduct investigations."

Browne said that the surveillance had value and listed the monitoring of an Islamic bookstore in Brooklyn that was frequented by the same people plotting a possible terrorist attack in Herald Square and the monitoring of a Staten Island location that helped their investigation of Abdel Hameed Shehadeh. Shehadeh, a native New Yorker, was arrested and currently faces federal charges for possibly lying about plans to travel to Afghanistan to kill U.S. servicemen.

"In both instances, the NYPD had already opened investigations. In fact, it had drawn up an investigative statement regarding the Islamic bookstore before the Demographics Unit came into existence," said Browne.

Galati also testified that the surveillance served a legitimate purpose. "A lot of conversations that have been brought back had value," he said. "On the surface, it may seem valuable. Overall, the conversation may relate to why people are at that particular location. To get a little bit deeper, I think that a conversation overheard by people in the Lebanese cafe may indicate to us that they are from South or North Lebanon."

The deposition of Galati was part of a process initiated through Handschu v. Special Services Division, an old federal case that ended with the court regulating how the NYPD can monitor political and religious activity. Unless there's specific information that the group in question is related to a crime, then any monitoring is prohibited. The NYCLU believes that the NYPD violated the case's ruling. The Handschu lawsuit actually began back in 1971 after the NYPD spied on students, alleged Communist sympathizers and civil rights groups in the 1950s and 1960s.