NEW YORK — The New York Police Department disbanded a unit that tracked the everyday lives of Muslims, but it has taken a tough stance in a heated legal battle over its continuing use of Muslim informants in terror threat investigations.
Muslim groups filed a civil rights lawsuit last year asking a federal judge to declare the surveillance unconstitutional and halt it.
City lawyers struck back by suggesting the plaintiffs brought the attention on themselves with “rhetoric or their known, suspected or rumored associations with people or organizations of ill repute.” The city then demanded any communications by the plaintiffs — including two Brooklyn mosques, an imam and a Muslim charity — that mention terrorism, jihad or the war in Afghanistan as well as financial records from the mosques and the charity, including names of donors.
The plaintiffs say the city is unjustly seeking private information. Disclosure of records from the mosque and the charity “would further alienate and chill congregants, members, donors and donees … and thereby infringe on plaintiffs’ right to free exercise, free speech and associational privacy,” their lawyers wrote in court papers in late March.
The New York Times, citing internal NYPD documents, reported this week that the police department’s Intelligence Division is continuing to debrief Muslims arrested for petty offenses to see what they know about other crimes and if some could be persuaded to volunteer as informants.
Police Commissioner William Bratton defended the debriefings Tuesday on a visit to Israel, telling the Jerusalem Post that they are “an essential element of policing” that doesn’t single out Muslims. City lawyers also say the NYPD puts people under surveillance for legitimate investigative reasons, not because of their ethnicity or religion.
But Muslim advocates say the program sends the wrong message.