Spying at the N.Y.P.D.

Commissioner William Bratton took an important step toward restoring trust in the New York Police Department this week when he disbanded a unit used by his predecessor, Raymond Kelly, to conduct an indefensible program of spying on law-abiding Muslims in neighborhoods and houses of worship.

The “Demographics Unit” undermined the fight against terrorism by alienating innocent Muslims who knew full well that they were being singled out for surveillance, not based on illegal activity, but because of religious affiliation.

Having dispensed with the unit, Mr. Bratton as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio must now deal with the underlying problem: the Police Department’s longstanding tendency to trample on people’s rights during investigations of groups engaged in political activities.

This problem dates back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the department’s infamous “Red Squad” conducted what civil rights lawyers described as illegal surveillance of groups like the Black Panthers, who were acquitted on charges of conspiring to blow up department stores and police stations. The case became a class-action suit that included other political groups and was named for a plaintiff, Barbara Handschu.

Under a 1985 settlement, the city agreed to court-supervised investigation guidelines that were then loosened after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The altered agreement gave the department the flexibility it needed to uncover terrorists plots. But it was also intended to prevent the police from unfairly targeting entire religious or political groups — or intruding into the private affairs of innocent people. It allowed the department to keep records on groups or individuals only when there were “reasonable indications” of potential law breaking.

After Sept. 11, however, the Police Department embraced the view that constitutionally protected activity could itself be seen as a precursor to terrorism and an excuse for peering into people’s lives. This led inevitably to a broad spying program that seemed to make Muslim groups subject to surveillance and infiltration even when there were no grounds for them or any connection to illegal conduct.

A court motion filed last year by the Handschu lawyers included stark declarations like the one from a man who was paid by the police to spy on a Muslim student group even though he said the police did not think the group was “doing anything wrong.” The paid agent said his handler told him that the department viewed “being a religious Muslim a terrorism indicator.”

Despite sending out waves of spies, the department never uncovered the “incubators” or radicalism it set out to find. Instead, it put innocent people on notice that they were regarded as terrorism suspects until proved otherwise. And, as a representative of the Arab American Association of New York told The Times earlier this week, the Demographics Unit “created psychological warfare” in the Muslim community by charting where people worked, shopped and prayed.

Mr. Bratton did the right thing by dissolving the unit. To prevent similar illegal practices from being used in the future, the city should agree to reinstate a provision of the original Handschu agreement that calls for an authority that includes high-level Police Department officials and a citizen appointee to review investigations into individuals or groups engaged in political activity. The point is not to obstruct those investigations, but to ensure that they are warranted and consistent with the Constitution.

downsum.com

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