NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The New York Police Department will strengthen safeguards against illegal surveillance of Muslims in terrorism investigations and install a civilian representative on a committee that reviews the investigations under the terms of a settlement of two high-profile civil rights lawsuits, lawyers said Thursday.
The announcement of the deal formally ended litigation over accusations that the nation’s largest police department was illegally infiltrating mosques and spying on Muslims based on their religion.
“We are committed to strengthening the relationship between our administration and communities of faith so that residents of every background feel respected and protected,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
“This is the latest step in the continuing efforts to build and maintain trust within the City’s Muslim community and with all New Yorkers,” Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said in a statement.
The settlement modifies and adds restrictions on surveillance set by the court-ordered Handschu decree, which was put in place in response to surveillance used against war protesters in the 1960s and ’70s. The decree was relaxed following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to allow police to more freely monitor political activity in public places.
Civil rights groups sued in 2013, accusing the NYPD of breaking Handschu rules. A second suit filed that year by mosques, a charity and community leaders alleged that the department was discriminating against Muslims.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called it a first-of-its-kind settlement.
“This is a historic and important settlement, the first of its kind since 9/11, and perhaps the first of its kind ever with such a broad set of safeguards that are designed to and will have the effect of protecting both our safety and security, and our fundamental freedoms,” Lieberman told 1010 WINS.
Under the deal, the Handschu guidelines will specifically ban investigations based on race, religion or ethnicity. The civilian representative will attend monthly meetings that review the investigations and have authority to report any civil rights concerns to the mayor or the court.
“They will sit in on the meetings and the process, they will make sure to their satisfaction that we’re complying with the process,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Larry Byrne told 1010 WINS’ Juliet Papa.
In addition, the settlement limits the use of under cover agents and confidential informants, and there will be no more open-ended investigations, CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reported.
“It recognizes and respects that everybody in America has the right to be free from police surveillance when they’re not suspected of criminal wrongdoing,” Lieberman said. “The civilian representative is a new procedural safeguard that will serve as a check on investigations at political and religious activities.”
“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,” said Hina Shamsi, ACLU national security project director.
Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller stressed the agreement does not weaken the NYPD’s commitment to investigate and to prevent terrorist activity in New York City, WCBS 880s’ Rich Lamb reported.
“I don’t wake up tomorrow morning without any authorities I didn’t have today. Haven’t lost the ability to open any investigation, to extend any investigation, to close any investigation,” he said.
Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights, two groups that have waged a similar challenge against the NYPD on behalf of Muslims in New Jersey, said they hope the settlement will help protect the constitutional rights of Muslims in the Tri-State area.
“This settlement is important in light of escalating anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes in the U.S., but at the same time we hope Mayor de Blasio will be more vocal about why the department was simply wrong to engage in religious profiling of the Muslim community in the first place,” the groups said in a statement.
The new monitor will serve for five years. The position can be eliminated by the mayor, but only with advance public notice.
Police officials said the settlement formalizes safeguards that were already in place, and it doesn’t require the NYPD to admit any wrongdoing.
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