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Muslim Spying Efforts Combine the Worst of the NYPD's Practices

Police combine racial profiling and targeting low-level offenses to create new cohorts of snitches in Muslim communities.
Photo by Dave Hosford

The latest Frankenstein's monster of New York "counterterror" policing policy brings together two of the most problematic practices enacted by the NYPD in recent years: the unconstitutional targeting of the city's Muslim communities, and the focus on the most minor of infractions as grounds for interrogation and arrest.

Largely owing to Pulitzer-prize winning investigative work from the Associated Press, the NYPD's Muslim spying programs were revealed — and then reviled — for their broad strokes and bad practices. Whole mosques, it was reported, were designated as terrorist organizations to enable greater police surveillance, and young Muslims were coercively recruited to infiltrate and report to the NYPD's Intelligence Division on the daily, often banal, consistently legal activities of fellow Muslims.


Former AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman highlighted how, buoyed by post-9/11 paranoia, the unprecedented development of an NYPD division — dubbed a "mini-CIA" — worked to make a potential target of any New York Muslim.

Despite dancing an unconstitutional legal tango in order to blanket-survey whole communities based only on their religion, these NYPD intelligence efforts have yielded very few criminal cases. The bad results and worse PR prompted the department to officially disband its plainclothes Muslim spying unit last month. However, as The New York Times noted this weekend, numerous Muslim surveillance practices continue unabated. Disturbingly, a fusion has emerged between the sort pre-figurative, preemptive policing that has long undergirded so-called "counterterror," and the sort of beat policing that aims at low-level infringements as a pretext for arresting and harassing New York's minority communities.

Documents from the NYPD's counterterror debriefing unit, reviewed recently by the Times, show that "the division’s counterterrorism mission had come to intersect in some new — and potentially uncomfortable — ways with the department’s more traditional crime-fighting work. The documents show that religion had become a normal topic of police inquiry in the city’s holding cells and lockup facilities."

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The Times highlighted how minor infringement arrests were used by the NYPD to take Muslims into custody. The arrestees would then be questioned about issues wholly unrelated to their arrests, and entirely pertaining to contacts in Muslim communities. The men were asked about where they prayed. Then they were asked to become snitches.

"One man was a food cart vendor from Afghanistan, arrested during an argument with a parking enforcement officer over a ticket. Another was an Egyptian-born limousine driver, picked up in a prostitution sting. Still another was an accounting student from Pakistan, in custody for driving without a valid license," the Times notes.

Given new NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton's explicit campaign to enact his "broken windows" theory, a zero-tolerance policing policy on New York's low-level, nonviolent offenders (de facto punishing the city's poorest), the news that these sorts of arrests are used as grounds for Muslim surveillance programs is especially troubling. The cheap-and-easy quota-driven police work, which already punishes New York's minority communities, serves as an easy prism through which cops can round up Muslims and coercively create new cohorts of snitches.

It's a dirty game which belies purported claims that the NYPD has ended the unconstitutional targeting of Muslims based on race and religion. It is the worst of local crime policing and counterterrorism combined — overreaching and essentially racist.

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Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Flickr/CreativeCommons