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Muslim New Yorkers scored a major victory last week in a settlement with the New York Police Department (Raza v. City of New York and Handschu v. Special Services Division) after the force agreed to reforms designed to protect Muslims from unjustified surveillance and discrimination.
The settlement also installs a civilian representative in the NYPD to act as a check on any investigations involving political and/or religious activity.
“This settlement is a win for all New Yorkers,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg in a statement. “It will curtail practices that wrongly stigmatize individuals simply on the basis of their religion, race or ethnicity. At the same time, the NYPD’s investigative practices will be rendered more effective by focusing on criminal behavior. The preservation of constitutional freedoms and the protection of public safety are not incompatible.”
In June 2013, the Raza case was brought to the courts by the NYCLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project of Main Street Legal Services at CUNY School of Law and the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP on behalf of religious and community groups that were possibly put under police surveillance.
Imam Hamid Hassan Raza, lead plaintiff in the suit, suggested Muslims follow the lead of other marginalized groups in America in fighting for their rights.
“In America, we have the right to stand up and speak out in response to unfairness and injustice, just as throughout this country’s history, other minorities have done the same thing and secured their rights,” said Raza. “We believe we have made important progress with this settlement, not only for New York Muslim communities but for other minorities in New York and beyond.”
Ramzi Kassem, founding director of CLEAR and a CUNY professor of law, said, “Despite the fear and stigma that unwarranted NYPD spying has fostered in Muslim communities, representatives of those communities and their allies organized and took a courageous stand to demand change, through this lawsuit and in many other ways. This settlement offers all New Yorkers a solid platform from which to pursue further reform.”
Lawyers told the courts in 2013 that investigations of Muslims by the NYPD violated a long-standing decree in the Handschu case (a class action suit to protect New Yorkers from unwarranted NYPD surveillance).
Some of the other requirements of the settlement include requiring the NYPD to account for the potential effect of investigative techniques on religious worship and political meetings—both constitutionally protected activities. Limiting the NYPD’s use of undercover and confidential informants and curtailing open-ended investigations by imposing “presumptive time limits” and requiring reviews of ongoing investigations every six months.
“For the first time, this watershed settlement puts much needed constraints on law enforcement’s discriminatory and unjustified surveillance of Muslims,” said Hina Shamsi, National Security Project director at the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement. “At a time of rampant anti-Muslim hysteria and prejudice nationwide, this agreement with the country’s largest police force sends a forceful message that bias-based policing is unlawful, harmful and unnecessary. We hope the NYPD’s reforms help make clear that effective policing can and must be achieved without unconstitutional religious profiling of Muslim or any other communities.”